After winning the primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney delivered a peroration in Manchester, New Hampshire, awkwardly titled “A Better America Begins Tonight.” In it, Romney claimed the mantle of GOP nominee and declared the general election season underway. He focused on the themes he has clearly been planning on emphasizing in the contest against President Obama: a return to American greatness economically and in global power. He talked, in a way he never did in the primaries, about the financial struggles of single mothers, military veterans and recent college graduates. He also took the same standard Republican positions—in favor of privatizing the public school system, crippling unions and eliminating pension and health benefits for public workers—and reframed them as advocating for fairness. (For example, “we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve.”) This is all part of his pivot to the center, coinciding with an emphasis this week on appeals to Latinos and young voters.
But how did Romney get here? Is it true that, as his opponents and detractors in both parties have claimed, he is only the nominee because he bought the nomination?
Every time Mitt Romney won a primary, his opponents churlishly carped that he was only able to win by outspending them. “To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can’t nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1,” wrote Newt Gingrich in a typical missive after Romney won the Illinois primary on March 21.
Even when his opponents won, they would warn potential donors that any failure to give could result in Romney’s purchasing the next round of contests. On February 8, fresh off an evening of upset victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick Santorum blasted his e-mail list, writing, “I saw what Mitt Romney and his team did to Newt Gingrich after he won South Carolina. They amassed millions of dollars for his campaign and his Super PAC—outspending his opponents nearly 5 to 1! This month will be no exception. They’re going to come after us now—because Romney doesn’t have a clear conservative vision for America that he can run on.”
Throughout the Republican primary process, Democrats were eager to make the same point. “With Super Tuesday Looming, Mitt Romney’s Vast Spending Advantage Gives Him an Edge but His Blatant Hypocrisy and Extreme and Out-of-Touch Positions Will Be His General Election Kryptonite,” wrote Democratic National Committee executive director Patrick Gaspard in a March 6 memo.
So did Romney, as his opponents in both parties contend, buy the nomination? Not necessarily. Political scientists and strategists say that it is difficult to prove causality between spending and results in a presidential primary. “It’s really hard to measure the effects of spending in primary elections, because if you look at a general election it’s easy to figure out expectations without money spent: you look at partisan lay of land. With primaries there’s no expectation going in,” says Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes A Plain Blog About Politics. “How do you assess your baseline? Without that, it’s really hard to figure out what effect money had.”
Bill Mayer, a professor of political scientist at Northeastern University and an expert on campaign spending goes even further. “You literally can’t buy a nomination,” says Mayer. “Money just by itself isn’t going to do anything unless you’ve got some underlying connection with the electorate. There are lots of examples: Phil Gramm 1996, John Connolly in 1980, Steve Forbes.”