Mitt Romney has followed the playbook for winning the Republican presidential nomination to the letter. He raised more money than his opponents and built a national organization. He piled up endorsements from prominent party insiders. He proved he could win in a bellwether primary in New Hampshire and a major state in Florida.
Labeled a front-runner early, he now finds himself getting weaker rather than stronger, raising a prospect unthinkable only two weeks ago: He could lose.
The conventions that have defined the primary process for the last 40 years have been turned inside out, and Romney’s fortunes have fallen.
“Through very little fault of his own, Romney is the front-runner, but he’s probably the weakest Republican front-runner in the history of the party,” said Dan Schnur, an aide on Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“He just had the bad timing to run for president at a time when the party establishment had much less influence over the nominating process,” Schnur said.
Party Power Ebbs
The strength of political parties is being undercut as the full impact of the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United case is being felt for the first time. The court held that the government can’t limit political spending, hastening the rise of a new class of political action committees dubbed super-PACs because they can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.
Now a candidate’s run can be kept alive from a single wealthy individual as when Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner, sustained Newt Gingrich and Foster Friess, a fund manager based in Wyoming, helped do the same for Rick Santorum.
The decision has created “a countervailing force on the money side,” said Tom Rath, a former member of the Republican National Committee and Romney supporter.
“The great rule was that after a startup period and the politics of the day became clearer, it became harder and harder to raise money if you were under-performing politically,” he said. “The existence of super-PACs countermands that. You can have life beyond your quarterly filings.”
In addition, the rise of anti-tax, anti-government spending Tea Party activists who rely on social media and see their lack of a formal organization as a virtue has undercut the authority of more establishment groups.
“The ability of a party to dictate to its voters is almost non-existent,” Rath said. “There are very few party decisions being made, tons of individual decisions. The way the party has subdivided, un-divided and re-divided is really playing out this time.”
Romney had been following a pattern for Republican primary winners since at least 1980. He raised more money, reporting donations of $56 million in 2011, more than double that of his closest fundraising rival, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who recorded $25.9 million in contributions last year, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The former Massachusetts governor won New Hampshire, and, like five of the last six nominees of his party, he came with experience, having run and lost before.
This time has been different in other ways, too. Candidate boomlets typically fade along with their chances. This time both Gingrich and Santorum have been written off only to bounce back with the help of their new financiers.
Santorum, who won contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on Feb. 7 with minimal resources, now leads Romney in polls in Michigan, where Romney’s campaign has committed significant campaign funds and emphasized his connections as a native and son of a popular governor.
“One of the reasons that people seem so surprised by the way that this primary has progressed is that Republicans tend to be much more orderly, much more hierarchical than this,” Schnur said. “As the grassroots activists have gained strength at the expense of the Republican establishment, we’ve seen this really spin out of control.”
That chaos has allowed multiple challengers to campaign as the un-Romney in the race, with Santorum now holding that position.
“There is no common denominator between various un-Romneys, except that each has been a vehicle for the various groups in the Republican Party to express their distaste for Romney,” said Schnur. “Other than Romney coming up with a message that appeals to conservatives, there’s not much he can do about any of it.”
While every race has its own dynamic, the defining message of this year’s primary thus far is that of disruption.
“The one convention that’s being honored is that there is no real convention,” said Rath, a lawyer in Concord, New Hampshire. “Every race defines itself. I do think this one has really pushed the envelope. There is nothing comparable to this race.”
Nineteen televised candidate debates also have given the race a reality TV dimension.
“It does remind me of these multi-person talent competitions,” Rath said. “It has made this whole race more immediate and accessible. There is a nationalization of this process much quicker than there used to be.”
The next contest in Michigan on Feb. 28 will be a test of whether Republicans will return to regular order. “If Romney loses Michigan,” Schnur said, “then the race will be in complete chaos.”