The GOP Primary Is Badly Wounding Mitt Romney

The primary-season excitement surrounding Obama's spectacular rise and historic candidacy facilitated a host of logistical advantages that helped him in the general: an adept fundraising operation, a campaign structure in 50 states, and, most critically, and enthusiastic grassroots base of supporters, surrogates and volunteers. It shocking that a first-term U.S. senator could raise $129 million before the first vote was cast in the Democratic presidential primary, but that's exactly what Obama did in 2007. He raked in $36 million more in the month after he (temporarily) won the Iowa caucuses, about half through small-dollar donations.

Small-dollar donors had a few bucks, but just as importantly, they had time. Leveraging the enthusiasm of those who invested as little as $5, Team Obama asked them to lend a hand, a strategy that established a robust ground game in nearly every primary state -- and a network that stayed alive through the general election. Obama for America had five offices in Dayton, Ohio, in October 2008; most its workers has been with the campaign since February or March. (Full disclosure: I was there, as a volunteer knocking on doors for Obama). John McCain, who had sewn up the nomination before his Ohio primary, had only one office.

Romney's operation is comparably pathetic. He obviously has more than enough money to win the GOP primary, but most of it comes from large donors. His campaign raised just $56.4 million in 2011, a paltry 9 percent in small-dollar donations. (If you include his super PAC, the total raised in service of his candidacy heads north to $89 million.)

Some argue that cash will coalesce around Romney once he's nominated. Super PACs and wealthy donors are more important this cycle, and the Koch brothers have led a group pledging $100 million to defeat the president. But timing matters, too. Without early and enthusiastic small donors, Romney is not only missing out on tidy windfall but failing to build a solid, invested national ground game that can persuade undecided voters and churn out votes on election day. After all, he's not going to easily out-advertise Obama in the autumn.

Romney's late push to win Iowa focused on motivating known supporters, not winning new ones. His surprise loss in Colorado came despite an emphasis on the ground game in the state. And he skipped campaigning Minnesota all together. He'll have to compete in all three in the general, but the fact is that the lack of conservative enthusiasm for Romney's candidacy is trickling down to real logistical weaknesses.

Romney's tepid grassroots support routinely results in headlines like "Evangelical Leaders Back Santorum." Romney has won the major-media endorsement race, but endorsements that command tens of thousands of values-driven foot soldiers have been less easily forthcoming.

Democrats' grassroots support is built through unions. In 2008, most were first Hillary Clinton backers out of loyalty to Bill, and helped lift her to primary victories in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. But because the differences between Obama and Clinton were of "degree", not "kind," union leaders easily embraced Obama once Clinton called for party unity.

Republican grassroots efforts are built through churches, many of whose leaders are now firmly behind Santorum and very likely painting Romney as a pro-abortion, pro-gay, liberal Massachusetts traitor. Santorum carried a whopping 76 percent of "heavily evangelical" counties in Minnesota and 57 percent in Missouri, en route to cross-coalition victories. Santorum strategist John Brabender says his boss's message is being carried "neighbor to neighbor," most of whom I'd wager meet on Sunday. If Romney lumbers to the nomination, it's difficult to see how the evangelicals will be converted, if you will, to work for someone so different.

Conservatives can argue that a rough primary fight "prepares" their nominee for a battle with President Obama later this year, but they're putting a brave face on a difficult situation. A Washington Post/NBC poll after the Florida contest painted a stark picture. Romney scored a 49 percent unfavorable rating to 31 percent favorable -- a reversal from his September numbers. More damaging, only 23 percent of coveted independent voters viewed him favorably, a slide from the mid-40s a few months ago.

Separately, his positive intensity score is +12, down from +20 in March 2011. Obama's is +32.

Put otherwise, the more voters get to know Mitt Romney, the less they appear to like him. No wonder his initial campaign strategy was to stay below the radar.

Image: Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

Presented by

Jim Arkedis is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. He is the co-author of Political Mercenaries.

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