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Did Romney’s Cheapness Doom His Campaign?

A few days ago I predicted some of the likely excuses for a Mitt Romney defeat, among them Hurricane Sandy, the Great Benghazi Cover-up, and a wave of nonwhite voters voting for the nonwhite candidate. All of these rationalizations have been getting heavy airing since Tuesday night. But so has another one that I wasn’t expecting: that, for much of the year, the Romney campaign was impaired by a lack of funds.

This seems hard to believe, given Romney’s prowess as a fundraiser and the massive support he got from well-endowed sectors like Wall Street. He did raise a lot of money—more than $800 million, nearly as much as Barack Obama. But the GOP primaries dragged on longer than expected (dispatching heavyweights like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain is no easy matter, you know) and had forced Romney to spend much of what he’d raised. He was not allowed to spend what he’d raised for the general election (donors can give up to $2,500 for the primaries and $2,500 for the general election) until after the nominating convention. This left him at a disadvantage in the May to August period when the Obama campaign shrewdly decided to spend much of its money, pummeling Romney with ads like this one to cast him as an out-of-touch, out-for-himself plutocrat. Romney and the Republicans knew this assault would be coming—Bill Clinton had similarly “defined” Bob Dole in the summer of 1996, as George W. Bush did John Kerry in 2004—and the SuperPACs supporting Romney spent very heavily to counter the Obama assault, nearly $400 million over the year. But their ads were mostly attacks themselves, rather than positive defenses of Romney, and studies have suggested that the conservative groups’ attacks resonated far less than Obama’s against Romney did.

This basic dynamic was plain to see at the time. What is new in this week’s inside accounts, though, is the revelation of just how frantic the Romney campaign was to replenish its coffers, and how much it affected overall strategy. For one thing, it meant spending a lot of time hobnobbing with high rollers when Romney, and later Paul Ryan, should have been out meeting voters. As Bloomberg reports: “With both candidates opting out of public financing, Romney and his aides grumbled about the amount of time they had to spend wooing donors to raise the money to match Obama after the costly primary. Romney spent much of the summer months collecting funds in Aspen and the Hamptons, rather than campaigning in Dayton and Daytona. In the three weeks after his convention, he attended more events for donors than for voters, holding 12 rallies and at least 18 fundraisers.”

But it wasn’t just the lost time. According to the Wall Street Journal, the campaign’s need for cash was a big driver behind one of its most pivotal decisions—to delay Romney’s shift toward a more moderate tone, his Etch-a-Sketch moment, until very late in the campaign, at the first debate. Many have assumed Romney waited so long because he feared losing conservative thought-leaders like the Journal editorial page or the party’s Tea Party base if he pivoted too soon. But this never really made sense -- after all, base voters would come out no matter what to reject Barack Obama, and the Journal editorialists would surely fall in line as well, as it did with comical dispatch the day after the first debate. No, according to the Journal report today, the reason Romney waited so long to soften his tone on issues like taxes and Obamacare was that he did not want to upset ... the millionaires and billionaires he needed to write checks for him, who wanted to hear the usual conservative talking points: 

Mr. Romney’s heavy wooing of conservative donors limited his ability to move his campaign positions to the center, to appeal to moderate and independent donors. The search for cash led him to a Florida mansion for a private fundraiser where Mr. Romney would make the deeply damaging, secretly recorded remarks where he disparaged and dismissed the 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes....In the eyes of top aides in both campaigns, that early summer period when Mr. Romney was busy fundraising was perhaps the biggest single reason he lost the election.

The Journal also reports that the Romney campaign had even gone to great lengths to produce ads with testimonials from companies that were helped, not devastated, by Bain Capital’s investment, but simply didn’t have the money to get them on the air over the summer. All of this raises an obvious question: Why didn’t Romney dip into his own deep pocket? He was more than willing to do so in 2007 and 2008, when he spent $42 million of his own money on a campaign that had far dimmer prospects than the 2012 one. A similar infusion could’ve done a lot of good in June or July, so why hold back this time? 

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Three explanations come immediately to mind. One is the reality that wealthy candidates who spend their own money on their campaigns have a much harder time raising money—a candidate who is blithely cutting himself big checks from a fortune estimated to be at least $250 million is not exactly an inspiring beneficiary of a donor’s generosity. Second is the fact that a Mitt Romney spending his own Bain-generated millions to get himself elected president would make himself an even fatter target for the Democratic effort to frame him as a self-interested plutocrat. 

The third explanation is more speculative, but, I would maintain, not unplausible. It is that Romney simply decided that this campaign was not worth the investment. Yes, he dearly wants to be president--to the extent that his campaign had a larger purpose, it was that, well, he really wanted to be president. But he is also a notorious penny pincher*, one who refuses to pay workmen for home improvements and goes to tremendous lengths to reduce the amount of money he owes the U.S. Treasury. Sinking $42 million into a losing effort last time surely burned him, and perhaps he simply decided that win or lose, he wasn’t going to take the hit this time. After all, he made a similar decision with his tax returns: as much as it may have hurt his election prospects to refuse to release more than two years of tax returns, thereby allowing the Democrats to make all manner of insinuations, he apparently decided that running for president was not reason enough to allow the exposure. So now he returns to private life with a paltry one-for-four batting average in running for office, but with his secrets, and his fortune, still intact.

*A new, rather startling example of Romney thriftiness surfaced late Thursday, via NBC’s First Read: “From the moment Mitt Romney stepped off stage Tuesday night, having just delivered a brief concession speech he wrote only that evening, the massive infrastructure surrounding his campaign quickly began to disassemble itself. Aides taking cabs home late that night got rude awakenings when they found the credit cards linked to the campaign no longer worked. ‘Fiscally conservative,’ sighed one aide the next day.” Well, that’s one word for it.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis