Mitt Romney’s High Cost per Vote: $17.14

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Politics, like baseball, isn’t fair. In 2011, the New York Yankees had a total payroll of $202 million, nearly six times as much as the payroll for the Kansas City Royals, who had to put the same number of players on the field and play just as many regular-season games. The Yankees, as you know, won more often, but at a much higher cost: it cost New York more than $2 million per regular-season win, while Kansas City got by with a cost per win of just $508,817.

In the same way, Mitt Romney has won more than half of the delegates to date in the ongoing Republican nominating contest and a greater share of the total vote than any of his rivals. But like the Yankees, he has done it with a far larger payroll, and a far bigger cost per vote. Through the first 23 contests, Romney has persuaded about 3.2 million people to vote or caucus for him. That compares favorably with the 2 million who have come out for Rick Santorum, the 1.8 million who have come out for Newt Gingrich and the 926,331 who have rallied around Ron Paul.

According to the Washington Post’s tally of television advertising, Romney and the PACs supporting him have put up about $33.5 million in ads so far. The numbers for his rivals, including supportive PACs, are much smaller: $4.4 million for Santorum, $6.9 million for Gingrich and $3 million for Paul.

So counting only TV spending, what is Romney’s cost per vote? $10.43, which is nearly three times the $3.89 that Gingrich and his allies spent, more than three times the $3.33 from Paul and company and nearly five times the $2.14 for Santorum.

But campaign ads are an imperfect measure of a campaign’s total operation. If we look at how much the candidates have spent so far from their campaign accounts, we get another way of looking at the race. Through the most recent disclosure, the Romney campaign has spent $55 million to date. The Gingrich campaign has spent $16 million. The Paul campaign has spent $29 million. And the Santorum campaign has spent about $5 million.

So how much has the entire Romney campaign spent per vote received? $17.14, which is a lot more than the $2.54 that Santorum spent, or the $9.05 that Gingrich has spent, and topped only by the $31.55 that Paul spent.

What do these numbers tell us? Both a lot and a little. We can say convincingly that Santorum has been overperforming, compared with the field, while Romney has been underperforming. If Romney were a corporation, it would hire a Bain consultant to come in and figure out how to reduce its cost per vote.

But politics is not business, and there is often no shame in having the largest operation. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign spent twice as much as John McCain’s campaign and won in the polls by only 7 points. But a big part of what Obama spent was a result of his abilities as a small-dollar fundraiser, not in spite of his poor performance as a candidate. It is also true that Romney’s big early spending gives him a huge advantage over the other Republican candidates, should he win the nomination. He is the only one with a campaign that is ready to pivot to the general election.

That said, one can wonder what it would be like if politics and baseball were fair. Would the Kansas City Royals be making the playoffs more often if the MLB had a salary cap? Would Santorum be coasting to the nomination if spending were equalized? Debate among yourselves. It won’t change anything. The game is not fair.

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