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Trump's problem is how to raise it, but Clinton's is how to spend it

Hillary Clinton
Chris Bergin | Reuters
Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Clinton summers with a staggering, fortyfold advantage in campaign cash over Donald Trump, top strategists from Barack Obama's 2012 campaign are encouraging her to pay heed to their success four years ago.

The main takeaway? Spend your money now.

"The bigger risk may be less about going crazy with the money," said Larry Grisolano, Obama's 2012 paid media director. "The bigger risk is being too conservative. We have a pathology in campaigns where we are always like a chipmunk trying to save for the winter months."

Even as it anticipated being grossly outspent by Republicans, Obama's campaign collective, sensing its own precious window in the early summer months of 2012, front-loaded its advertising budget in an effort to poison Mitt Romney to voters.

"One of the most decisive strategic decisions in that campaign was Obama taking money literally out of fall [ad] buy and fast-forwarding in June to define Mitt Romney before he could," said Pete Giangreco, who handled Obama's direct-mail advertising. "That was pivotal, and for the rest of the campaign, there were some definitional pieces of Romney that were locked in stone. We got to October and [voters] had digested the fact that they didn't like Romney and he was out to screw the middle class."

In June 2012, Obama was outspending Romney by roughly 6 percent. An NBC News analysis last week found that the Clinton campaign and its supportive outside-spending group had, through the first half of this month, spent $23.3 million on battleground state television ads; Trump, on the other hand, had not spent anything.

"Money always comes in late in presidential campaigns," said Stephanie Cutter, who was Obama's deputy campaign manager. "We took risk in spending that money, but we were confident it would come in July, August and September. It seems like she is doing the same thing. She is taking advantage of big a vulnerability of Trump's [current fundraising] but also deploying a proven tactic of defining the opponent."

However, a Politico story last week suggested that the campaign's supporters were also nervous about having enough cash reserves for the coming months. The report cited some anonymous Clinton donors, as well as named strategists, who even fretted that present effort to tar-and-feather Trump might, in fact, be too successful — that is, it might lead to him being booted from the nomination. While this particular concern seems far-fetched, to say the least, any signs of donor resistance can easily add to a campaign's reluctance to spend down its accounts before the conventions.

After all, the Clinton campaign's election plan is still predicated on a billion-dollar-plus budget, and there is always concern in campaigns that too-good news of the moment can suppress the zeal of donors.

"It is almost like the team that had a first great half, and the coach exhorts them to pretend it is zero-zero," Jonathan Mantz, who served as the Clinton campaign's finance director in 2008. "We don't know if Trump 2.0, by getting rid of his campaign manager [Corey Lewandowski, who was fired last week], will make him more of a traditional professional candidate. We don't know if his attacks on Hillary will resonate in the battleground states."

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday found Trump slumping to new depths, trailing Clinton by 12 points nationally. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News national poll showed a somewhat tighter race, favoring Clinton by 5 points.

Both surveys follow what has arguably been Trump's worst month of the campaign, which was only further ratified by his latest Federal Election Commission filing, showing the presumptive GOP nominee had only $1.3 million cash at the end of May. In light of this, the campaign began furiously shaking the GOP money trees last week and claimed to be making instant headway. In the two days since the FEC report's release, Trump said he had raised $2 million, while the Republican National Committee announced that it had brought in $5 million of online contributions over that same 48-hour period.

The Clinton campaign, which ended last month with $42 million in the bank, did not respond to repeated questions about whether the revelations of Trump's famished coffers had changed its own budgeting decisions. A spokesman for Priorities USA Action, the main pro-Clinton super PAC, told CNBC.com: "Our plans haven't changed one bit — we will continue to aggressively take the fight to Donald Trump from now until Election Day."

The group had already planned a robust $130 million TV ad plan, which it fired up at the start of this month, earlier than it had initially planned. It is now running TV ads attacking Trump in eight battleground states, including North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008 but lost four years ago.

Recognizing Clinton's vulnerabilities among white, working-class voters in Pennsylvania who twice went for Obama, Priorities last week announced that it had budgeted $10.5 million for TV ads to run in that state from July 5 to Election Day.

Until now, the Clinton campaign appeared content to leave the disavowing work to the super PAC, while it spent its TV money to play up Clinton's kinder, gentler side. But over the weekend, it announced a new national TV ad set to be released this week, which attacks Trump over his self-serving response to the Brexit vote. The campaign did not disclose how big an ad buy this would be.

Grisolano said that in terms of the "strategic dynamic," it will likely be harder for Clinton's campaign to define Trump than it was for Obama to define Romney.

"We had a chance to define on a blank slate, at a time when [Romney] had just come out of the nominating process," Grisolano said. "Both of these candidates, Clinton and Trump, are well defined with voters and in part, I think, they are overly defined, so the chance to make a dramatic swing in a race and pounce in a vacuum is not quite what it was."