WASHINGTON — Flush with a tidal wave of campaign donations, Barack Obama spent $250 million on television ads in his presidential campaign, outflanking John McCain and the Republican Party by as much as $80 million, a leading political ad-monitoring firm said.
Obama took full advantage of his decision, which McCain criticized, to become the first presidential candidate to forgo public financing for the general election campaign, despite an earlier pledge to limit himself to $84.1 million in federal funds.
Beginning in early June, he amassed about $364 million for the fall campaign, Federal Election Commission records show. Obama's campaign reports already show that he raised a record-shattering $668 million since entering the race last year, with some donations yet to be disclosed.
He had enough cash to "play hunches" and make expensive TV advertising forays in long-held Republican states, including Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Virginia, said Evan Tracey, president of the Virginia-based Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Obama's campaign even advertised in Alaska before Republican rival McCain picked its governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, he said.
"At the end of the day, he was able to make this race all on Republican turf, and he was able to do it by applying leverage via these dollars," Tracey said.
On Tuesday, Obama captured half a dozen states that Bush won in 2004: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia. Two others, Missouri and North Carolina, remained too close to call on Wednesday.
Obama spent roughly $31 million on TV networks, resurrecting an option that had been "more or less given up for dead in presidential politics," and using it for half-hour infomercials.
His ad spending smashed President Bush's 2004 record of $188 million on TV ads, Tracey said, even though Bush began advertising for the fall campaign in March of that year, three months earlier.
The Obama campaign made large TV buys in cities such as Chicago, whose stations beam into northwest Indiana, and in Washington, where they reach northern Virginia, helping him capture the state.
Obama held net TV advertising advantages over McCain of $1.6 million in Denver, $2.6 million in Charlotte, N.C., $8.9 million in Miami, $7 million in Tampa, Fla., and $1.7 million in Chicago, Tracey said. The campaign spent $1.7 million on Chicago stations, though only 13 percent of their viewers live in Indiana.
In contrast, McCain spent more than $100 million in private donations over the summer, but was limited to $84.1 million in public money beginning in early September. The Republican National Committee narrowed the gap, amassing more than $200 million to assist McCain.
Tracey said that McCain's campaign spent about $135 million on TV ads, and the RNC kicked in more than $40 million for coordinated or independently produced pro-McCain or anti-Obama television ads.
Harder to measure is how much the TV ad wars affected the outcome.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said he thinks that "the fundamentals of the election year were so favorable to Democrats that Obama would have won even if McCain had outspent him."
However, he said that Obama's extra cash might have helped him "expand his Electoral College map and add some . . . votes in very closely contested places like Indiana and North Carolina," building a margin that "gives the new president the feel of a mandate."
Tracey said he suspects that Obama's prime reason for rejecting public financing — a model he repeatedly endorsed in the past — out of fear that he would face an onslaught of damaging attack ads from outside groups, as Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts did from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth when he challenged Bush in 2004.
Tracey and Sabato agreed, however, that Obama's decision takes away any incentive for congressional Democrats to pass legislation strengthening the public financing law.
Tracey said that any Republican seeking to challenge Obama in four years "will have to look in the mirror and ask the question, 'Can I raise $600 million?'"
Sabato predicted that federal funding "will remain as a safety net for underfunded 'populist' candidates," but won't be an option for those who want a serious chance of winning.
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