Romney in 2012 vs. 2008: Thriftier With Cash, and Quicker to Bash

How a front-runner stayed that way four years after a failed bid.

March 30, 2012, 5:13 PM

April 2, 2012 -- What a difference four years make.

Mitt Romney is now essentially the presumptive Republican nominee — other candidates are dropping hints of unifying against President Obama, establishment giants like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are lining up behind the former Massachusetts governor, and his campaign is even talking about its strategy to challenge the White House on foreign policy.

Is the moderate 2012 Mitt Romney -- despite his courting of conservatives -- that different from the 2008 version, the guy who ran for president but lost the GOP nomination to the moderate John McCain? He's still the same person, more or less, but his campaign strategy changed significantly. Here's how.

Don't Make It Rain

In 2008, Romney spent more than $42 million of his own cash to fund his bid for president. That's about $9 of his own money for each vote he got, and it's also about as much as the indomitable super PAC currently supporting him has spent so far ($40 million).

Romney changed his tune after spending a small fortune and not winning, deciding that in the 2012 cycle he would rely on donors for money instead (car elevators don't pay for themselves after all). He was, of course, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which effectively released unlimited amounts of money on the campaign. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that Romney has spent only $52,500 of his own money for the 2012 nomination.

In May, the Romney campaign announced that the candidate and his wife gave $150,000 to a joint fund with the Republican National Committee, an apparent symbolic donation.

By doing so, Romney avoids the charge that he's just a rich guy who's able to run for president because he can afford to. Instead he's perceived as just a rich guy who's able to run for president because his friends can afford to donate to his super PAC.

Turn a Blind Hawkeye

Iowa gets a lot of attention every four years because it's the first state to vote in the primary process. Romney used to be one of those who believed in Iowa's significance — in his quest for the nomination in 2008, he spent $7 million trying to win the Iowa caucus, looking for an early boost in the campaign season and a validation of his candidacy.

He didn't win the caucus, and after that, it wasn't hard to see that he didn't have a great shot at winning the whole thing, either.

So in 2012, Romney repaid Iowa by giving it the stiff arm. He barely campaigned there until the home stretch before the early January vote, while some of his opponents had spent their entire campaigns in Iowa.

Romney's early-state strategy was anchored in New Hampshire, which he was expected to win easily. So it came as a nice surprise to him that he was declared the winner in Iowa by eight votes, even if a counting error later resulted in Rick Santorum's actually being the winner. In his speech that night, Romney called it a "great victory." With the storyline that he was a strong candidate despite not campaigning in Iowa too much, Romney sailed through New Hampshire.

Think Negative

Romney spent much of the 2008 cycle introducing himself to voters in ads that would be described by most people as "positive," i.e. they were about the candidate himself and didn't accuse opponents of fathering illegitimate children.

Take this 2007 ad — called "Leadership" — in which Romney jogs along a trail while a narrator runs through his background as the manager of the Olympics and a private-equity firm. "He turned around dozens of companies and became a business legend," the pleasing voice says. "At every step, he's met extraordinary challenges."

OK, now watch this ad, from the 2012 primary, in which Romney isn't mentioned at all. Instead, it's just a clip of a 1997 newscast in which Tom Brokaw reports that lawmakers had found Newt Gingrich "guilty of ethics violations" and that "tonight he has on his own record the judgment of his peers, Democrat and Republican alike." This ad ran before the Florida primary, which Romney won decisively — and which Gingrich still says he lost because of an onslaught of negative ads against him.

Romney had no need in 2012 to reintroduce himself. Most Republican primary voters already knew who he was, and they either liked him or didn't. Those who didn't would rotate their preferred candidate through the list of the conservatives running against Romney, and the negative ads aimed at them helped Romney stay atop the field for the entire race.

The Dream Team

Chuck Norris might beat Marco Rubio in a fistfight, but not in a contest of whose endorsement matters more in a Republican primary.

Romney's team has compulsively organized endorsement rollouts throughout the 2012 campaign, capping them this week with a conservative trifecta: George H.W. Bush, tea party poster boy Marco Rubio and budget god Paul Ryan. Add them to an already impressive establishment list of supporters that includes the indomitable Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Tom Ridge, Bob Dole, Tim Pawlenty, Jan Brewer and John McCain.

Where was the establishment in 2008? Lining up behind McCain, for the most part. It may seem odd now, but Romney was perceived as a conservative alternative to McCain four years ago, and a host of talk-radio voices like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham backed Romney as the non-McCain.

Sound familiar?

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... an Outside Spending Group Allowed to Raise Unlimited Amounts of Money

Ah, super PACs. Is there anything they can't do?

Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, has already spent $40 million in the primary campaign, mostly on negative ads to fend off challenges by Gingrich and Santorum. Its competition is a joke — Gingrich's similar-sounding super PAC, Winning Our Future, has spent $16 million, and Santorum's has shelled out $7 million.

Gingrich's super PAC has basically one benefactor, the billionaire casino machine Sheldon Adelson, and Santorum is helped by the outdated reference-dropping hedge-fund investor Foster Friess. Romney has a bunch of pals giving money, including a handful of private-equity and Wall Street types, and the Texas home builder Bob Perry, who famously funded the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign that helped sink John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004.

Unfortunately for Romney in 2008, super PACs hadn't been born yet, which might have been why the candidate spent so much of his own money then. Restore Our Future, which is run by Romney's close associates but is legally forbidden from "coordinating" with the campaign on where to buy ads and how much to spend on them, can make swiftboatloads of commercials that disparage Romney's opponents, and Romney never has to own up to them because he technically isn't responsible for them.

Romney knows the rules. "My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house," he said in December.

Yeah, the White House! No, seriously, that would be illegal.

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