Can you spare $5? Romney courts small donors

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Ticket

Just minutes after polls closed in Mississippi and Alabama Tuesday, Mitt Romney's campaign sent an email to his supporters under the former Massachusetts governor's name.

"As we await tonight's results, I wanted to take a moment to let you know about a chance to meet up for lunch," Romney wrote. "This won't be just any lunch, though. I'll be bringing the winner out to California to grab a bite with me at my favorite burger place."

For a $5 campaign donation, individuals would be entered for a chance to have lunch with Romney, the email said—though it was careful to note that "no purchase was necessary" to enter.

It wasn't the first time the Romney campaign has sponsored a contest aiming to connect supporters with the candidate. But the email was part of a more noticeable push in recent weeks to woo small donors too—and nab their contact information.

While Romney has far outraised his rivals for the Republican nomination, the ex-governor has largely relied on big checks from big donors to sustain his campaign. But, he hasn't had the same kind of success attracting small donor support that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have. After their respective primary wins, both of the GOP candidates watched surges of small checks trickle in, helping to widen their support base.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, just 10 percent of the $62 million Romney raised for his 2012 campaign through Jan. 31 came from donors giving $200 or less. By comparison, small donors were responsible for nearly half the cash that Santorum and Gingrich raised. Ditto for President Obama, who raised $64 million though January from donors of $200 or less.

While the Romney campaign acknowledges a gap with Obama, aides insist it's unfair to focus on the percentage of small donors rather than the actual dollars raised by Romney when comparing his fundraising efforts to that of his rivals.

"These aren't apples to oranges conversations. They are like apples to hamburgers," Zac Moffatt, Romney's digital director told Yahoo News. "One of the challenges with low dollar comparisons is that we've been successful for a long period of time, you don't see that massive one time January spike. But if you extrapolate the numbers from the beginning of the campaign, we are as good, if not better, than the rest of the Republican field… We are exactly where we want to be."

Technically, Romney has raised more from small donors than Santorum has—though that's largely because he has also raised almost 10 times more than the ex-Pennsylvania senator. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) numbers, Romney has raised $6.4 million through January from donors contributing $200 or less, compared to Santorum's $3.7 million. But Romney was outdone by Gingrich, who took in $8.8 million from small donors, according to the Federal Election Commission.

While Romney's February fundraising report is not due to the FEC until next week, his campaign says small donations have slowly been picking up. Still, it wants to focus on the bigger picture. Aides say the $11.3 million Romney raised in February was the candidate's second best fundraising month of his campaign. But they have so far declined to say how much money the ex-governor's campaign has left in the bank—a crucial detail given that Romney burned through more than $18 million in January, leaving him with just $7.7 million cash on hand. His decision not to spend big on TV advertising ahead of Super Tuesday prompted speculation that his campaign was worried about finances—a rumor his aides strongly denied.

"Finances are not a problem for this campaign," Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney, told reporters earlier this month.

While his staff and volunteers have stepped up its outreach to small donors, the candidate has turned his attention to raising bigger checks in recent weeks. He's held fundraisers in Seattle and Florida, where he took in a reported $1 million on Monday night. He's in New York City Wednesday, where he's slated to appear at several finance receptions. And Romney is still raising cash only for the primary—not the general election--according to a campaign spokeswoman.

Yet, as the primary slogs on the biggest unknown is whether Romney is willing to dip into his personal fortune—estimated to be between $190 million and $250 million—to fuel his campaign. In 2008, Romney dropped nearly $45 million of his own cash on the Republican primary.

Investing his own funds would give Romney more of a financial advantage, but it could also call attention to the fact that he's one of the wealthiest Americans ever to seek the presidency—a detail the Obama campaign and his GOP rivals have tried to use against him and that some aides have speculated might be hindering campaign contributions from small donors.

Asked last week if he would be willing to chip in cash to fund his campaign, Romney didn't rule it out.

"I don't have any plans with regards to my campaign finances at this stage other than to keep on raising the money necessary to go forward," Romney said.