More broadly, experts say, the confusion underscores the uncertainty of the first presidential campaign conducted in a dramatically reshaped campaign finance landscape brought forth by Citizens United and related court and FEC decisions. Rules that remained consistent for decades are now gone, and political observers and participants of all stripes are still racing to catch up.
"This is the first presidential election since 1972 in which both major party candidates are operating outside a major public financing system," said Michael Toner, a Republican and former FEC chairman. "So it's a much more fluid situation that we're experiencing this fall."
To a large degree, Romney's fundraising was never as impressive as his bottom-line hauls suggested because much of the money was earmarked for accounts he doesn't directly control. Money raised with and for GOP committees still matters, but its value is diminished because the candidate doesn't directly control it. Money raised through joint committees, for example, is often funneled to state parties to help fund voter-contact efforts. But in that case, the cash can't be used for TV ads with the potential to shift presidential votes on a large scale.
"The candidates have presented the money to us, with the joint-fundraising, and the party and candidate money, as if they're all equivalent to each other," said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. "And they're really not. The three are not equally useful to candidate. They're not equally flexible."
The candidate's own campaign has maximum flexibility "“ capable of funding candidate travel, a ground game and TV ads that say exactly what the campaign wants to say, exactly when it wants to say it. So the fact that Obama's account has roughly $40 million more than Romney's, even if his allies have less on hand, is significant.
Obama has been able to raise more money through his campaign account because a greater portion of his contributions come from small donors. Major donors are important, but federal law means only $5,000 of their money can fund the official campaign account while the rest goes to party and joint-fundraising committees. In other words, $50,000 collected from many small donations is more valuable to a candidate than a $50,000 infusion from one donor.
According to numbers compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute and shared by Malbin, through Aug. 31 Obama had raised $147 million from donors whose aggregate contributions totaled less than $200 (more than the $121 million he had raised from small donors at the same time four years ago). Romney had raised $39.5 million from donors giving less than $200 by the end of last month, according to the institute (about $3 million less than McCain's total in 2008).
The larger donors also present another problem for Romney: Contributors offering $5,000 checks might have boosted his summer fundraising totals, but because they've reached their maximum contribution, he can't return to them for more money. Obama, meanwhile, can continually ask his small-donor pool for more cash.
"There's a practical problem there" for Romney, said Neil Reiff, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer. "The momentum is going to die because it's a pyramid scheme to some extent. You're claiming all this credit but you can't go back to same well."