Political Animal


March 08, 2012 11:21 AM Beyond Mitt’s Small Donor Problem

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • stormskies on March 08, 2012 11:46 AM:

    It's important to realize, as Rachael Maddow pointed out last night, that the only income group in which buffoon Romney has majority support from are the folks that make $100,000 dollars a year or more. Even among Repigilicans.

    That fact should not bode well for the general election despite the Repiglicnans efforts to suppress the vote of the poor, the disadvantaged, the elderly, students, and African-Americans.

  • Anonymous At Work on March 08, 2012 11:47 AM:

    And Romney will devoutly want to avoid having to loan his campaign money because it keeps his personal fortune on the radar in all the wrong ways ("He can afford to loan himself 50 million?"), especially considering he has yet to win the "under 100k" segment in any primary so far (except VA, where it was only him and Paul, and Paul still won the "under 50k" segment).

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 08, 2012 11:49 AM:

    Correct me if i'm wrong, but it's it pretty broadly accepted that negative campaign ads are much more effective in a primary vs. relative unknowns than in a general against an incumbent? Seems obvious that the public is a little too cynical for "Obama's pals around with terrorists! Obama's pastor was Jeremiah Wright! Obama wants to impose Sharia law! Obama wants ACORN to steal the election with illegal immigrants' votes!" to gain much traction, especially since they've seen the reality of Obama for 4 years.

  • Danp on March 08, 2012 11:49 AM:

    What is "earned media"? Is that like going to service at Reverand Wright's church? Or failing to put your hand over your heart during the Star Spangled Banner? Because if it is, both of these seemed to earn more media than negotiating a nuclear truce with North Korea. Somehow McCain, Lieberman and Graham earn more Sunday morning media than the whole Democratic party.

  • Lucia on March 08, 2012 12:02 PM:

    he's not the sort of guy to whom you'd give... your heart

    I couldn't agree more (being from Massachusetts), but I'm a little uneasy about this. It reminds me of the characterization of W as a guy you'd like to have a beer with, and we all remember how well voting on that basis worked out. Romney's pitch is basically, "You may not like me, but I can get things done." That's what I'm afraid of, of course, but it might work at least with some voters to paint Obama as a wimp who can't get things done, a perception that lingers in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

  • Ron Byers on March 08, 2012 12:04 PM:

    I believe a ground game aimed at making sure every person making less than $100,000 per year is qualified to vote would result in a Democratic landslide of epic proportions. If the Democratic party wants a task that it can handle, it should be to develop programs that insure everybody eligible to vote has the proper ID. Neutralize the Republican voter suppression campaign with a ground game that is targeted on qualifying the Democratic base.

  • stormskies on March 08, 2012 12:09 PM:

    What Ron Byers has said plus reminding all voters who can not get a 'proper' ID that they can still vote by way of the absentee ballot. The Democrats should be using a bull horn about this fact.

  • Lucia on March 08, 2012 12:26 PM:

    And people who do have ID can avoid long lines by voting early (albeit on a reduced schedule). How many "mysterious" election-day machinery glitches will we see this year?

  • jjm on March 08, 2012 12:49 PM:

    I recall a Wall Streeter several years ago in the business page of the New York Times saying "The way we see it, is one dollar=one vote."

    But the reality is even $2500 (the maximum individual contribution) is STILL ONE VOTE.

    So spend away, dumb clucks, while the numbers are all on the other side...

  • TCinLA on March 08, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Romney running out of donors is important. As well as running out of volunteers. OK, in 2008, I wasn't a volunteer, I was a paid fundraiser, but I personally raised $350,000 for Obama between May and October, and with two exceptions (that were notable for being exceptions - two calls on two different Saturdays that ended up with two entire families, a total of 8 people, each giving the $2500 maximum), the majority of those donations were never more than $500 at a time, and they came from people who, when they gave you the information for the records as to their employment, were definitely middle of the middle class and had to think twice about making any donation, and were willing to re-balance their budget to do so out of belief in the candidate. That, ladies and gentlemen, was enthusiasm, and a whole lot of them were open to second and third calls over the course of the campaign. That's how you build a financial grassroots movement, that has an effect come election day.

    There aren't enough over-$100K annual income voters in the country (assuming all of them were Republicans, which isn't the case, I assure you) to give Romney a majority in the General Election, and if he is stuck trying to fundraise then with max-only donors, he really will be in a world of hurt. He won't dare take federal funds and limit his campaign, and every time it's reported he's made another loan to his campaign it will remind people who and what he is.

    I don't want to just beat the Republicans this year, I want to kick them in the balls, and as they go down smash their face on my knee, and once they're down stomp their heads into the mud. I want to see the Republican Part as dead nationally as it is here in California, where it has been declared irrelevant.

  • bdop4 on March 08, 2012 1:14 PM:


    Agree with 99% of your post, but until the most aggregious parts of Prop 13 are repealed, republicans will not be irrelevant and will continue to obstruct true progress in our fair state.

    We need to bring an Obama landslide down into the state and local elections. That's when we will start to see real change.

  • fs on March 08, 2012 1:42 PM:

    Romney is management - nobody likes management. We all have to suffer it daily...

  • jhm on March 09, 2012 7:41 AM:

    Just think of the Romney campaign as the beta version of the GOPer of the future. The powers that be need to eventually learn how to run automated candidates (to maximize the return on their investments: human pols just can't be trusted to toe the line 100%). So, till actual automata are available, we have the closest thing to a transition cyborg in Gov. Romney; why not take advantage and glean valuable data? anyway the guy just might win, which is more than one could say for the others.