The Top-Down Romney Campaign

Much of the coverage of the moment is about the problem Mitt Romney is having with Republican base voters, who seem to neither like nor trust him. Their hesitation doesn't seem to be enough to stop Romney from becoming their nominee, but it has, and will continue to have, a multitude of consequences for the Romney campaign. Today, the New York Times points to another one: the shockingly small amount of Romney's fundraising that has come from small donors. You might say, well, money is money, right? And Romney has raised a lot more than his opponents, so what does it matter? The answer is that it has a series of implications for the fall campaign, none of which bode well for him. Some of it is about the practical necessities of a campaign, but perhaps more importantly, it's about the spirit the campaign embodies. But before we get to that, let's look at the numbers: 

 

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 money raised by the Romney super PACs will be less influential than money raised by the campaigns. He will no doubt be able to find plenty of big donors who will give his super PAC a million bucks or so each. When a donor does that, the million bucks gets spent on TV ads and mailers, which is all well and good. But it doesn't support volunteers (no one is volunteering for a super PAC) who make phone calls and knock on doors, and multiple studies by political scientists in recent years have demonstrated that personal contact is far more persuasive than things like TV ads.

And Romney's super PACs won't make as much of a difference in the general election as they have in the primaries. Chances are that when you combine the campaigns and the super PACs, Obama and Romney are at least going to be in the same ballpark when it comes to funds. But as Newt Gingrich accurately pointed out in his Super Tuesday speech the other night, it's one thing for Romney to bury his primary opponents in ads in a particular state, outspending them by huge margins, but he won't be able to do that to Obama. (Santorum claimed Romney outspent him by 12 to 1 in Ohio; whatever the true figure was, it was big, and it only got Romney to squeak out a one-point victory.)

The most interesting thing to me about the Times article was the quotes from Romney supporters who said they weren't bothering to donate. "He's so rich he doesn't need my support," said one. That's coming from one of his own voters. And everything about Mitt Romney, from his personal wealth to his campaign's TV-heavy approach, shouts that this is a top-down enterprise, something you might decide you want to purchase, but not something you would want to help build.

One of the things—perhaps the main thing—that made Barack Obama's 2008 campaign so extraordinary was the way it incorporated ordinary citizens into its effort. Unusually for a campaign, it gave them tools to take control of their activities, creating their own pages on my.barackobama.com, uploading their own videos, designing their own signs, and so on. People felt like they had ownership of the campaign, and this made them believe more deeply in the effort and work harder to make it succeed. This idea of the campaign as a collective enterprise also infused Obama's rhetoric. Allow me to revisit something I wrote during Obama's convention:

What's so compelling about Obama's best speeches is that they make you feel as though you are actually a part of history. Older generations didn't doubt that they were: they or their loved ones fought in wars, they suffered through the Depression, and they generally felt as though the momentous events of their time were things everyone experienced together. The last generation to feel this way -- the baby boomers -- may not all have gone to Vietnam, but those who grew their hair long or listened to a Hendrix album can look back and say they were participants in the country's transformative era. (This may explain why boomers are so relentlessly nostalgic: Their own coming of age, a time we are all likely to look back on as particularly meaningful, came at a tumultuous and weighty moment for the nation.)

But if you were born in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, history probably isn't something you participated in, it's something you watched on television. You watched America's all-volunteer military invade a succession of small countries (Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq...) but never worried about you or your brother going to fight, unless it were by choice. The most significant event of the second half of the 20th century -- the breakup of the Soviet Empire -- happened on television, too. When a world-changing event took place on American soil, most of us watched it on the tube. And what did the people who were actually in lower Manhattan on September 11 say? Over and over, they told journalists, "It was like something out of a movie." They could only relate it to their experience as spectators.

Again and again, Obama tells people that they are more than just spectators. When Obama said, after the Iowa caucus, "On this January night -- at this defining moment in history -- you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do," the pronouns were critical. Unlike George W. Bush, who tends to put himself at the center of the heroic stories he tells, Obama is much more likely to talk about "you" and "we." That speech included a repetition of the phrase "This was the moment," culminating with, "Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment -- this was the place -- where America remembered what it means to hope." It's a kind of instant nostalgia, looking forward to looking back, that harks back to Shakespeare's Henry V rousing his troops at Agincourt ("This story shall the good man teach his son. ... And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here").

The message is that you are living in historic times, and history depends on you. This is particularly compelling for progressives who have spent years thirsting for a political movement that makes them feel strong.

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.

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