By MICHAEL LUO and MIKE McINTIRE
Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has collected a record-shattering $640 million, but only two of his staff members are among the 15 highest-paid workers in the general election, according to campaign finance records. The rest, including the three highest paid, are employed by Senator John McCain.
The Obama campaign, despite having more than 700 field offices across the country, compared with fewer than 400 for Mr. McCain, has spent slightly less on rent than its counterpart.
And even though Mr. Obama has raised $400 million more than Mr. McCain, he has spent less on fund-raising consultants.
Mr. Obama has devoted enormous sums in this election to nearly everything, including more than $280 million for advertising and $31 million for his campaign’s payroll. His half-hour prime-time commercial on Wednesday, which cost well over $3 million, was perhaps the most visible flexing of his financial muscle.
But the Obama campaign, under the watchful eye of its manager, David Plouffe, has worked hard to maintain a reputation for frugality. The campaign has escaped the glare that has come with spending excesses that dogged other candidates, including the millions that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton handed to her pollster Mark Penn, John Edwards’s $400 haircuts and the large outlays for consultants and other expenses that nearly bankrupted Mr. McCain’s primary campaign last year.
“It’s both extravagant and frugal at the same time,” Joe Trippi, a former top adviser to Mr. Edwards and the manager of Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, said about Mr. Obama’s operation. “Extravagant in its mission and ambition but frugal in how they implemented it.”
McCain campaign officials pointed to steps they have taken to save money, a challenge made urgent after the campaign’s implosion last year. But the campaign has also had far less to work with, constrained by the $84 million given to it for the general election under the public financing system.
The Obama campaign’s gaping advantage is sharpest in its advertising budget and payroll. Last week, the Obama campaign spent nearly twice as much as Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee on television advertising. Mr. Obama’s payroll had nearly 800 employees in the first half of October, twice as many as Mr. McCain’s, with far more Obama-paid workers in closely contested states than McCain-paid workers.
Nevertheless, a review of F.E.C. records shows that the Obama campaign has used several methods to keep expenses down.
Both campaigns have relied heavily on volunteers. The Obama campaign has increased its ranks beyond salaried employees who receive regular paychecks and benefits by enlisting hundreds of local per diem workers for get-out-the-vote efforts. The Obama campaign has made $3.2 million in per diem payments, many no more than a few hundred dollars and most often made for brief periods during the Democratic primaries. The McCain campaign has reported relatively few per diem expenditures.
Unlike its Republican counterpart, the Obama campaign has frequently used a provision in campaign finance law that allows supporters to donate work space for the campaign. The campaign has credited more than 250 people with making in-kind rent contributions totaling $210,000.
When Mr. Obama’s field workers arrived in Kentucky before that state’s primary in May, Flora Templeton Stuart, a lawyer in Bowling Green, offered to make her office and its seven phone lines available on weekends and evenings for about three weeks. The campaign booked a $100 in-kind contribution from Ms. Stuart, who said she felt more than compensated by being invited to stand behind the stage when Mr. Obama spoke at an event.
“My reward,” she said, “was to hug him.”
The use of in-kind donations for office space can be problematic if the estimated value is substantially lower than what it would cost to rent the same space on the open market. Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer in Washington who specializes in election law, said the F.E.C. was usually reluctant to challenge a campaign’s estimates as long as some in-kind credit had been recorded.
To be sure, a close look at campaign finance data shows that the Obama campaign has indulged in its share of luxuries. It has spent more than $5 million on renting arenas and other places for Mr. Obama’s sprawling campaign events. Obama campaign officials also appear to have devoted significantly more than Mr. McCain’s organization to polling, about $3.8 million since July, compared with just over $1.1 million for the McCain campaign.
The Obama campaign spent more than $57,000 at the Four Seasons in Amman, Jordan, during the candidate’s overseas trip in July, although a spokesman said that much of that was for rooms for the traveling press corps and that the campaign would be reimbursed by the news organizations. The campaign spent about $60,000 on the staging for Mr. Obama’s speech in Berlin on that trip. Then there is the $140,000 that the campaign has spent at companies that make American flags, apparently mostly for campaign events, compared with just $7,000 spent by the McCain campaign.
But these seem to be more the exception than the rule.
The three highest-paid staff members in the presidential campaign since July, when the general election campaign began in earnest, were Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s speechwriter; Robert DeServi, who produces the campaign’s events; and Trey Walker, who manages Mr. McCain’s campaign in the mid-Atlantic region. The highest-paid Obama staff member was Julianna Smoot, his finance director.
The Obama campaign’s rules for limiting expenses are strict. Workers at the Chicago headquarters are reimbursed for trips to the airport only if they take public transportation. Staff members on the road receive a $30 per diem for meals, compared with $40 for members of the McCain campaign. In the primaries, the Obama campaign required workers to drive if they were going somewhere less than a five-hour drive away.
“Even though the budget was large,” Mr. Plouffe said, “because of the aggressiveness of the strategy, you really have to watch every dollar.”
The best-compensated people in campaigns are usually not staff members but consultants. Media consultants have typically received some of the biggest paydays from presidential campaigns, earning 6 to 7 percent of the total advertising purchases by Democrats in the last several elections. The Republicans saved money in 2004 by paying flat fees to their media strategists. Democratic campaigns, including Mr. Obama’s, began clamping down as well in this election, capping the fees.
Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, said his firm, where Mr. Plouffe is a partner but is on leave, is likely to collect about 1 percent of the total amount spent on advertising. Democratic media consultants divided amongst themselves nearly $9 million in 2004, approximately what the Bush campaign paid its consultants for a more extensive advertising effort. Mr. Axelrod said he believed that the media firms involved in the Obama campaign would collect a similar amount, even though it has aired tens of millions of dollars more in advertisements.
Mr. Axelrod likes to joke that at the Obama headquarters, if someone waves a hand in front of the automated paper towel dispenser in the men’s room, a section of paper towel is dispensed; wave at it again and a note spits out, “See Plouffe.”