In most ways, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign has improved upon the 2008 version. The message is more focused, the debate performances are sharper, and the staff is leaner and more efficient.
But the campaign is underperforming by one key measure: fundraising.
Despite a massive effort and sky-high expectations, Romney has raised only $32 million through the end of September — $13 million less than at the same point in 2007 (not including his own loans to the campaign).
The campaign has had less time for fundraising, having launched in May instead of January. But one reason for the later start was the expectation that fundraising would be far easier this time around. After all, four years ago Romney was relatively obscure on the national scene, while he entered 2011 as a well-known front-runner.
More importantly, Romney was starting with a ready list of thousands of contributors from the previous campaign, who presumably would be ready and waiting to support him again.
But that has been the problem, a Boston Phoenix review has discovered.
Only a quarter of those who gave large amounts to Romney's campaign in 2007 have contributed in 2011, the Phoenix found from a close comparison of donor information. (See sidebar for an explanation of the Phoenix's methods.)
Even Romney's earliest supporters are, for the most part, sitting on the sidelines. Just 30 percent of big donors who gave in the first three months of 2007 have given this year. Of those who gave in the very first week last time, the return rate is 40 percent — still well under half.
Although economic troubles may have played some role, almost nobody the Phoenix spoke with thinks it has been a significant factor; few of these big donors are hurting for cash. "It's a very unusual drop-off," says Todd Domke, a Republican consultant with experience in many high-level campaigns. "Especially considering he was not a front-runner then, and this time many viewed him as inevitable."
Others express similar surprise. "Usually when somebody gives you that much money, they're a strong supporter and are likely to be a future donor," says Rob Gray, a Republican consultant who was senior advisor for Romney's gubernatorial campaign in 2002. "It's puzzling that the retention rate is that low."
The Romney campaign did not respond to requests from the Phoenix for interviews. But several people in close touch with the campaign say that the low contribution rate from last cycle's donors has surprised members of Romney's inner circle as well.
The campaign had a goal of raising $50 million in its first active quarter, which ended this past June. That optimistic figure, which leaked out from early organizational meetings, did not seem unreasonable — until it became clear how many 2007 givers were not re-upping.
"A lot of people who were supporters, but not core supporters, were going to wait," says William Achtmeyer, who worked with Romney at Bain Capital and remains a strong backer.
The campaign walked back the $50 million target, claiming that it was the goal for the entire primary season — an implausible cover, unless you believe that the campaign wanted to raise less than it did last time.