If money talks, we'll likely soon hear the real reason why Barack Obama beat John McCain. Both men and the national parties will report to the Federal Election Commission today how much money they raised in October and November. And what the numbers will probably show is that Mr. Obama outspent Mr. McCain by the biggest margin in history, perhaps a quarter of a billion dollars.
On May 31, as the general election began in earnest, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee had a combined $47 million in cash, while the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee had a combined $85 million.
Between then and Oct. 15, the Obama/DNC juggernaut raised $658.7 million. I estimate today's reports will show Mr. Obama, the DNC and two other Obama fund-raising vehicles raised an additional $120 million to $140 million in October and November, giving them a total of between $827 million and $847 million in funds for the general election.
Mr. McCain and the RNC spent $550 million in the general election, including the $84 million in public financing Mr. McCain accepted in exchange for his campaign not raising money after the GOP convention.
How did Mr. Obama use his massive spending advantage?
He buried Mr. McCain on TV. Nielsen, the audience measurement firm, reports that between June and Election Day, Mr. Obama had a 3-to-2 advantage over Mr. McCain on network TV buys. And Mr. Obama's edge was likely larger on local cable TV, which Nielsen doesn't monitor.
A state-by-state analysis confirms the Obama advantage. Mr. Obama outspent Mr. McCain in Indiana nearly 7 to 1, in Virginia by more than 4 to 1, in Ohio by almost 2 to 1 and in North Carolina by nearly 3 to 2. Mr. Obama carried all four states.
Mr. Obama also used his money to outmuscle Mr. McCain on the ground, with more staff, headquarters, mail and a larger get-out-the-vote effort. In mid-September the Obama campaign said its budget for Florida was $39 million. The actual number was probably larger. But in any case, Mr. McCain spent a mere $13.1 million in the state. Mr. Obama won Florida by 2.81 percentage points.
Mr. McCain was outspent by wide margins in every battleground state. But it would have been worse for him if RNC Chairman Mike Duncan and Finance Chairman Elliott Broidy hadn't stockpiled funds in 2007 and early 2008. The RNC provided nearly half the funds for the GOP's combined general-election campaign, while the DNC provided less than a tenth of the funds that benefited Mr. Obama.
To diminish criticism, Mr. Obama's campaign spun the storyline that he was being bankrolled by small donors. Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, calls that a "myth." CFI found that Mr. Obama raised money the old fashioned way -- 74% of his funds came from large donors (those who donated more than $200) and nearly half from people who gave $1,000 or more.
But that's not the entire story. It's been reported that the Obama campaign accepted donations from untraceable, pre-paid debit cards used by Daffy Duck, Bart Simpson, Family Guy, King Kong and other questionable characters. If the FEC follows up with a report on this, it should make for interesting reading.
Mr. Obama's victory marks the death of the campaign finance system. When it was created after Watergate in 1974, the campaign finance system had two goals: reduce the influence of money in politics and level the playing field for candidates.
This year it failed at both. OpenSecrets.org tells us a record $2.4 billion was spent on this presidential election. And with Mr. Obama's wide financial advantage, it's clear that money is playing a bigger role than ever and candidates are not competing on equal footing.
Ironically, the victim of this broken system is one of its principal architects -- Mr. McCain. He helped craft the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform along with Sen. Russ Feingold in 2002.
No presidential candidate will ever take public financing in the general election again and risk being outspent as badly as Mr. McCain was this year. And even liberals, who have long denied that money is political speech that should be protected by First Amendment, may now be forced to admit that their donations to Mr. Obama were a form of political expression.
It is time to trust the American people and remove limits on how much an individual can donate to a campaign. By doing that, we can design a system that will be much more open by requiring candidates to frequently report donations in an online database. Technology makes this possible. Such a system would be easier for journalists to use and would therefore make it more likely that fund raising would be included in news coverage. That would give voters the tools they need to determine if a candidate is getting too much from unattractive people.
Rather than showing the success of a new style of post-partisan politics, Mr. Obama's victory may show the enduring truth of the old Chicago Golden Rule: He who has the gold rules.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.