Beyond Mitt’s Small Donor Problem

It’s pretty well known that the virtually certain 2012 presidential nominee of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, has financed his campaign so far with an exceptionally successful corporate fundraising effort and has built the largest, best-financed, and above all most abrasively negative Super-PAC operation ever known. But Mitt’s failure to attract small-dollar donors is less well-known, and as Paul Waldman notes at the American Prospect today, the gap between Romney and the other candidates on this score are pretty shocking. The percentage of total money raised from contributions under $200 are as follows: Rick Santorum 49%; Newt Gingrich 48%; Ron Paul 46%; Barack Obama 42%–and Mitt Romney 10%. Even in absolute dollar terms, Romney’s small-donor haul is unimpressive: $6.4 million, compared with $8.8 million for Gingrich, $14.4 million for Paul–and $63.7 million for Obama. Yes, Mitt’s small donor contributions are nearly double Santorum’s $3.3 million, but he’s outraising Rick overall by a 10-1 margin.

There are some immediate problems associated with depending so heavily on big donors, notes Waldman:

It may be harder to find a hundred people who’ll give $25 than that one donor who’ll give the legal maximum of $2,500, but they give you something the fat cat doesn’t: you can come back to them again and again and ask for more money, something the Obama campaign did very well in 2008. Once the fat cat maxes out to the campaign, he’s done, and the only other way he can help is through super PACs.

And Romney’s donors are “maxing out” at unusually high rates, as the New York Times’ Nick Confessore and Ashley Parker noted yesterday:

About 40 percent of Mr. Romney’s itemized individual contributors through January gave the maximum $2,500 allowable for the nominating fight, according to a study from the Campaign Finance Institute, the highest proportion of any candidate since 2000. That means they cannot give him any more money to use in the nominating battle.

Just 8 percent of Mr. Gingrich’s itemized donors and 9 percent of Mr. Santorum’s have “maxed out” contributions to their campaigns for the primaries, meaning the rest of the two candidates’ supporters can give more cash if the nominating contest drags on.

This is why a lot of observers think Mitt Romney is going to have to reach into his own (admittedly deep) pockets just to get through the primary season.

And important as Super-PACs have been in the primaries, they almost certainly won’t be in the general election. For one thing, Romney will not have the sort of overall financial advantage over Obama that will enable his Super-PAC to achieve the sort of negative-ad air supremacy that helped him win in Florida, Michigan and Ohio. For another, it’s universally understood that paid television ads simply aren’t that big a factor in general presidential elections (earned media, and for that matter, voter mobilization, are significantly more important). Yet Super-PACs aren’t good for much else; as Waldman says, “no one is volunteering for a Super-PAC.”

The bigger problem for Mitt is that it may be difficult to get that many people to voluteer for him, either. Yes, conservatives will turn out and vote for him, whether or not they ever grow to like or trust him. Yes, he will have the robust support of right-wing media, probably more than John McCain (who had similar “base” problems) did in 2008. But ideology aside, as Waldman argues, everything about Mitt Romney’s candidacy tells voters he’s a commodity they are being asked to buy, not the inspiring leader of any sort of cause:

Mitt Romney is just never going to make his supporters feel that he and they are engaged together in a common enterprise, and the outcome of the campaign depends as much on them as it does on him. They’ll vote for him, and some true believers will volunteer and do what they can. But the Romney campaign, in the end, will look, feel, and be a top-down effort, like something designed and imposed by a management consultant of the kind the candidate himself used to be.

In turn, that may lead Romney during the general election to run an even nastier campaign than he’s run in the primaries, to motivate followers by fear and malice rather than hope or affection. But he’s probably never going to shake the perception that he’s not the sort of guy to whom you’d give your last dollar, or your heart.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.