Mitt Romney probably never imagined his current predicament: He has lost three of the last four Republican Presidential nominating contests to the lightly regarded former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; trails Santorum by 10 points in the latest Gallup poll; and is limping into his home state primary in Michigan next Tuesday—a contest he may well lose. The Republican establishment is becoming ever more noisily dissatisfied with his candidacy, and if he can’t prevail on Tuesday, several prominent members appear poised to demand he step aside. Their concern isn’t hard to fathom.
Right now, Romney looks as though he’d be a dangerously weak nominee. But there isn’t much Republicans can do about it. And for that, Romney can thank the Supreme Court. Its 2010 decision, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, gave rise to so-called super-PACs, the ostensibly independent political committees that can accept unlimited sums from individuals, unions, and corporations and use that money to influence races, usually in the form of negative television ads.
Most of the recent attention devoted to super-PACs has focused on Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson, the wealthy donors whose millions have helped prolong the candidacies of Santorum and Newt Gingrich, respectively. But Romney’s super-PAC has been at least as instrumental to his own campaign, and possibly more so. In the states where he’s won, Romney and his allies have routinely outspent his opponents by a factor of 5 to 1 or even greater, burying them beneath waves of negative ads to which they lack the resources to respond. As the Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson has pointed out, Romney’s campaign committee and super-PAC combined to spend more than $32 million last month, dwarfing his rivals’ efforts and pushing him into the lead.
But when Romney hasn’t deployed these resources, such as in the Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota contests two weeks ago, he’s fared much worse. All else being equal, most Republicans don’t seem to want him as their nominee. Given his current tenuous position in the race, it’s easy to imagine his many deficiencies would have sunk him by now were it not for the tens of millions of dollars in support he has received from an outside entity.
This is hardly the result most Republicans (and Democrats) anticipated from Citizens United. Instead of making it easier for the establishment to consolidate support behind its preferred choice, the decision may inadvertently vouchsafe the nomination to someone too weak to have won it otherwise.
It wouldn’t be the first time that major changes to campaign finance laws have wound up having unanticipated effects. In 2003, the McCain-Feingold law took effect, all but wiping out the large “soft money” donations upon which Democrats in particular had long relied.
The law also limited individual donations to a Presidential candidate to $2,000 for the primary and general elections (the limit increased to $2,300 in 2008). This put a premium on the kind of small donors the Republican Party had traditionally done a much better job of attracting. Although most conservatives opposed the new law, Republican election lawyers were so confident it would redound to their party’s benefit that they privately dubbed it “the Democratic Party suicide bill.”
A few years later, things looked much different. Contrary to popular assumption, the Democrats did not suffer under the new system. In 2007, candidate Barack Obama built an online fundraising machine that attracted small donors in record numbers. This enabled Obama first to knock off the powerful favorite, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primary, and then to rout John McCain, the law’s namesake, in the general election, vastly outraising him in the process.
But the Citizens United decision and the rise of the super-PACs has returned rich donors to a position of prominence, even more so than before. In the aggregate, this has benefited Romney more than anyone else and looks to be his campaign’s saving grace. Whether it’s a blessing for his party is something that may not become clear until Election Day.