In outspending former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich en route to the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney proved he knows how to reel in big-cash backers. But if he hopes to go toe-to-toe this fall with President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor needs to show he can fish for small-dollar donors, too.
“Now that the race [is] a two-person contest, Mr. Romney ought to be able to bring more small donors in,” said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), a Washington-based think tank. “But to do so, some things will have to change. He will have to gain more passionate support or more committed support as opposed to respect. He will have to make a real effort to find these people and go after them. This campaign at several points has said that it was doing so, but we do not see much evidence of that.”
Even if Mr. Romney goes after smaller fish, it’s not clear the GOP rank and file are eager to hop into the presumptive nominee’s net.
“Not unless I’m struck by a lightning bolt from on high,” said Emma P. Routh from Franklinville, N.C., who fired off a $100 check to Mr. Santorum in March, weeks before the former senator from Pennsylvania dropped out of the race. She said it might take divine intervention to get her to send a similar check to Mr. Romney.
“If God speaks out loud, I might. I’m not very enthusiastic about Romney. I’m sort of at the point where I’m going to have to hold my breath while I go to the polls,” she said.
Mark Robinson, a pastor in Galesburg, Ill., who describes himself as “one of those radical religious folk,” said it’s “very important to me to have a bedrock candidate that makes decisions based on conscience rather than political winds.”
Mr. Santorum met that criteria, but the pastor is not sure about Mr. Romney. Those doubts mean he expects to donate to Mr. Romney “only 20 percent of what I would have done with Santorum.”
“I like to think that Romney’s religious heritage would lend itself to more conviction,” he said. “I’m just not sure at this point. Although, being scared of Obama’s convictions, maybe I should be more excited about supporting the middle ground over the worst.”
Need for grass-roots greenbacks
Mr. Romney’s Federal Election Commission filings document the campaign’s difficulties with small-dollar donors like Mr. Robinson and Ms. Routh.
Donations through the end of March show the campaign still depends heavily on large contributors. Sixty-four percent of Mr. Romney’s funds come from donors who’ve given the maximum legal amount of $2,500, according to a CFI breakdown.
Craig Shirley, a conservative author and GOP strategist, said that has to change.
“If you are not getting small donors, you are not getting intensity because that is what the small donor represents,” Mr. Shirley said. “The fact that somebody is going to vote for you is one thing, but if they are willing to pick up the checkbook and write you a check for $25 means they are making an investment in a campaign, which means by definition they are going to do other things for that campaign.”
‘Why would we give him money?’
A random survey of Santorum and Gingrich donors found that Mr. Romney has his work cut out for him if he expects to bring them aboard.
A lawyer in New York said Mr. Romney wouldn’t get his money because he doesn’t see Mr. Romney as a “true conservative.” He also said he is concerned that the ex-governor will “say whatever he needs to get elected and then do whatever he wants” if he wins the White House.
A gas retailer in Topeka, Kan., meanwhile, said her money will “eventually filter down” to Mr. Romney.
Clarissa S. Rozenboom of Oskaloosa, Iowa, said Mr. Romney doesn’t need her help.
“He is a millionaire, why would we give him money?” she told The Times.
She sent $95 last month and $300 over the course of the campaign to Mr. Santorum because she thought he needed cash to compete. But she doesn’t think Mr. Romney, with his personal fortune estimated to be upward of $250 million, needs help.
Of the $86.8 million in campaign contributions Mr. Romney had raised through March, nearly 90 percent came from itemized contributions, which are those that exceed $200.
Less than half of Mr. Santorum’s donations came in chunks of more than $200, while checks exceeding $200 made up a little more than half of the donations for Mr. Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, who is still in the race.
Obama as Romney’s asset
Fred Malek, a member of Romney’s finance team, said he is aware of the importance of attracting small donors.
“We are going to be up against a machine that’s going to raise and spend a record-breaking amount trying to tear apart Mitt Romney and his record because they have nothing else to run on, and Romney is going to need every single bit of support from donors large and small to compete effectively,” Mr. Malek said.
Ironically, Mr. Romney’s biggest asset in the money chase may be his opponent, Mr. Obama.
“This case is one that you have to defeat the wolf in the sheep’s skin,” said Thomas Rogus of Stephen, Minn.
The small-business owner said that while he is concerned that Mr. Romney could “flip-flop on a lot of issues,” he considers the former Massachusetts governor easily the lesser of two evils when compared with the incumbent.
“That is all it is about, whatever it takes to do this. This is scary. This is really scary,” he said.