How much campaign does $2 billion buy? Americans are finding out.
This year's presidential campaign fundraising surpassed that staggering sum Thursday, in the final sprint to Election Day on Nov. 6. And anyone in one of the handful of states expected to determine the outcome is sure to see first hand how that money will be put to use.
Endless TV ads. Direct mail pitches calibrated to the neighborhood and even block level. And get-out-the-vote efforts that aim to leave no door unknocked.
At $2 billion, according to accounting statements submitted to the government, this election is on track to be the costliest in history, fueled by a campaign finance system vastly altered by the proliferation of "super" political committees that are bankrolling a barrage of TV ads in battleground states.
President Obama and Mitt Romney had brought in about $1.7 billion so far this election, according to fundraising reports submitted Thursday night.
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Added to that: nearly $300 million in donations involving super PACs since early 2011, as well as tens of millions more in donations to nonprofit groups that run election-related ads but don't have to disclose their donors.
Obama, the Democratic Party and related fundraising committees raised a combined $88.8 million for the first 15 days of October, reports showed, while Romney's fundraising apparatus raised $111.8 million during the same period.
The largest of those were two pro-Romney groups. American Crossroads, a Republican-leaning super PAC with ties to former President George W. Bush's longtime political counselor Karl Rove, reported raising at least $79.6 million through October 15. Restore Our Future, founded by former Romney aides, reported raising $110 million so far. Priorities USA, a pro-Obama group founded by two former aides to the president, reported raising $62.8 million in contributions.
The $2 billion fundraising figure doesn't include nearly $130 million spent on political ads by non-profit groups that aren't required to file campaign finance reports or disclose their donors. Such so-called social welfare organizations are governed by tax laws, not election laws, although they are often affiliated with established super PACs.
Presidential candidates in 2008 raised more than $1.8 billion in inflation-adjusted figures. This time, new factors have contributed to the sharp escalation in the campaign money chase.
This year marked the first time that both major party candidates opted out from the public financing system established to set limits on how much a presidential candidate can raise and spend. Both Obama and Romney would have been eligible for about $100 million in taxpayer money to support their campaigns through the general election, but both gambled -- correctly -- that they could raise and spend far more.
In 2008, Obama became the first presidential contender to refuse all public financing while his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, accepted the government funds. The lopsided result -- Obama outspent McCain by more than 2-to-1 in the general election -- effectively ended public funding as an option for serious candidates.
With the 2012 election so tight, both Obama and Romney have spent considerable time at high-dollar fundraising events courting wealthy donors. Romney last month lamented the time spent fundraising rather than speaking to larger groups of voters, saying "fundraising is a part of politics when your opponent decides not to live by the federal spending limits."
Both Obama and Romney have raised considerable cash from small donors, too, especially the president. His campaign reported that more than 2 million donors have contributed at least $427 million to his campaign.
Obama spokesman Adam Fetcher acknowledged Thursday that Romney and his supportive super PACs were outspending the president on the airwaves. He said the Obama campaign was making efforts to expand its donor base as it headed into the remaining days before the election.
Federal election regulators have raised the limit on individual contributions to candidates, which means campaigns can solicit more money from donors than they have in the past. Individual donors can now give a total of $5,000 in the primary and general elections to a candidate, compared to just $2,000 in 2000.
Michael Toner, a Republican campaign finance lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the close race between Obama and Romney and the sharply polarized electorate have also played a role in accelerating the dash for dollars.
"I don't know any campaign manager who thinks they have too much money. In this political 50-50 environment you can't ever have enough," Toner said. "Every last million could make the difference in who is elected."
But the emergence of super PACs and other outside groups, unleashed partly by the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010, has done more than anything else to reshape the contours of presidential campaign fundraising. A handful of federal court cases have broadly eased campaign finance regulations, allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums. Most of the money has been funneled to super PACs, which can raise and spend money on behalf of candidates as long as they don't coordinate expenditures or strategy with the campaign.
"The distinctive factor in this election is the outside money being spent and the corrupting money financing it," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate. "It's a symbol of the disastrous campaign finance system we have and the undue influence relatively few well-financed individuals and interest groups now have over government decisions.
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is the top super PAC donor this year. Adelson, a billionaire, has contributed more than $40 million to Republican super PACs, including those backing Romney.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.