It’s no secret that, as far as frontrunners go, Mitt Romney’s never exactly set the grassroots on fire. But his latest fundraising numbers drive home just how weak his small donor appeal is compared to his rivals — and especially President Obama.
One good measure of fundraising strength with the masses is contributors who have given less than $200, who are not listed individually in finance reports. Let’s take a look at how the candidates stack up in the chart below, which shows how many of their millions have come from these low-money donors versus the higher rollers in the 2012 cycle.
As you can see, Romney is the clear anomaly by a long shot, raising nearly 90 percent of his total haul from larger contributions. By contrast, only around 40% of Obama’s donations are from individuals who have given more than $200 total and his smaller contributors alone raised more money in total than Romney’s entire fundraising operation. For the rest of the Republican field, the ratio is somewhere closer to 50-50 — take a look at the total small donor cash for Gingrich and Paul, for example, and you see that their huge disadvantage versus Romney is almost entirely due to the frontrunner’s bigger contributors.
“What it shows is that [Romney] does not have a broad base of support among small donors, who are motivated to give small amounts to the campaign,” campaign finance expert and UC-Irvine professor Richard Hasen told TPM.
But the real worry for Romney is maxed out donors, who have given the $2,500 limit to his primary run and can no longer legally contribute. The chart below shows what percentage of each candidate’s total cash as of the start of 2012 came from top dollar donations.
Once again, Romney stands out big time, with 67% of his overall money derived from max donors. And after turning in a weaker than expected $6.5 million haul for January while burning through $18.8 million in expenses, wealthy backers tapping out may be a real problem. Hillary Clinton experienced similar troubles right around the same time in her presidential run, forcing her to donate $5 million of her own money in February 2008. At the start of that year, 56% of Clinton’s campaign donations came from max contributors vs. 40% for President Obama, who was running rings around her with under-$200 donors.
Romney does have some advantages over Hillary, however. He isn’t running against someone like Obama in the primary, whose 2008 operation was to fundraising what Jeremy Lin is to basketball. Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul have not been particularly impressive at bringing in cash lately and none of them beat Romney’s January numbers. Meanwhile, Hasen notes that John McCain’s late primary fundraising was also more reliant on big donors than some of his rivals — 44% of his contributions at the start of 2008 were max level, yet he survived the primary.
But, much more importantly, Romney has a weapon that no candidate had in 2008: Super PACs. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, those rich donors who want to help out Romney with more than $2,500 can cut a check as gaudy as they want to an independent group called Restore Our Future, which is run by his former staffers,. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Not only did Romney’s Super PAC outraise all its rivals in 2012, but the vast majority of the donations were over $100,000. Only in the last few weeks, with Sheldon Adelson cutting $5 million checks to Newt Gingrich ahead of competitive primaries, are his rivals beginning to compete.
The trouble with Super PACs is that while they can help blanket the airwaves with attack ads, the campaign still needs to raise money to finance basic necessities like staff and travel. If things get tight there, Romney has another advantage his competitors don’t have: $200 million plus in personal assets. While Romney spent over $42 million of his own money on his 2008 bid, dipping into his own funds would be an embarrassing sign of weakness given that he long ago decided to rely on donors this time around.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.