It’s nearing 9 p.m. and lightning forks across the sky, but inside a cavernous concrete expo hall, a mostly Hispanic crowd is chanting Mitt Romney’s name. Although Romney trails Barack Obama by more than two-to-one among Latinos, Miami — known for its conservative Cuban population — is friendly territory. The crowd waves “Juntos con Romney” signs and drops his name into salsa tunes. When Romney takes the stage with his Spanish-speaking son Craig, he looks gratified by the outpouring of support. “What a Miami welcome!” he shouts. “Juntos con Romney!”
If Romney is thrilled by the crowd, that may be because he hasn’t been around many lately. The Wednesday night gathering in Miami was his first campaign rally since Friday – an eternity at this phase in the campaign. By mid-September, presidential candidates commonly cram as much voter contact as possible into each day. But with just seven weeks until Nov. 6, Romney’s skimpy public schedule is presenting an interesting test of how much retail politics still matters in the age of super PACs.
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To be sure, Romney has been both busy and visible to voters. He spoke to Latino business leaders Monday in Los Angeles, held a hastily convened press conference that evening to respond to the Mother Jones video roiling his campaign, taped an interview with Fox News Tuesday and attended a Univision candidate forum here before the Wednesday night Miami rally. But the bulk of week has been devoted to a fundraising. And Wednesday’s stop in Florida was his first in a battleground state since last Friday.
Since the Republican convention, Romney’s retail campaign has been superseded by the constant search for cash. As he hopscotches the country, he has anchored his agenda with visits to ritzy enclaves of rich donors, rather than camping out in electoral battlegrounds as his predecessors have done. Tuesday, for example, took him from Orange County, Calif., to a fundraiser in Salt Lake City, and on to Texas, where he held another in a hotel ballroom on the outskirts of downtown Dallas. None of those three states are up for grabs on Nov. 6.
Such itineraries have led some pundits to question whether the time he’s spent pitching donors behind closed doors might be better spent in the handful of swing states expected to tip the presidential race — or trying to boost his numbers in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania or Michigan, where he has sagged in the polls. Speaking to TIME last week, a senior adviser to Romney defended the frequency of Romney’s public events, noting that President Obama was able to stockpile money while Romney was busy clinching the Republican nomination. For the first time since the advent of public financing for presidential campaigns in the 1970s, the adviser said, neither candidate was taking public money — creating an arms race that required a heavy slate of finance events.
That need was born out by a report Tuesday night on the website of the conservative magazine National Review, which revealed Romney had drawn a $20 million line of credit last month against his campaign contributions earmarked for the general election and unavailable to him until after he formally became the GOP nominee. It’s a “balancing act,” the adviser said, one that will tilt heavier toward rallies and public events going forward.
Romney’s campaign has not said so, but the schedule may reflect a calculation that it simply makes sense to play to the candidate’s strengths. Romney is often stiff and scripted on the hustings. His triumph in the Republican primary owed more to his war chest and organization than to his dynamism on the stump. He may not be the best medium for his message. But behind closed doors he is a skilled salesman. The video unearthed by Mother Jones reveals a candid, funny and freewheeling (in hindsight, perhaps dangerously so) candidate. There’s a reason Romney is such a prodigious fundraiser. And all that cash can buy TV ad exposure a month of rallies can’t match.
On top of that, some believe the deluge of ads — more than $1 billion are expected to be spilled on the presidential race, with more than half still to come — has rendered retail politics a secondary concern. “It’s too late to do rallies,” Romney bundler John Catsimatidis told reporter Scott Conroy of RealClearPolitics. “I don’t think you can see enough people to make a difference. I think getting on television and telling the people what you’re going to do — spending your time doing that is more important than hitting 50 cities in 50 days.”
But banking on TV has its risks. The blizzard of advertising in September and October may yield diminishing returns, as the two sides’ attacks cancel out and voters grow weary of the constant negativity. Some political science research suggests TV ads “can be pretty effective early, when candidates are being defined in the electorate,” says Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. “As candidates are better defined, they have less effect.” That’s particularly true in an electorate with few persuadable voters. At the same time, focus-grouped ads are a more precise targeting tool than even the best-tailored stump speech.
Romney has made Spanish-language TV ad buys to help close the gap among the Hispanic voting bloc. At the Univision forum Wednesday, he couched his position on illegal immigration in softer terms and stressed — four times in a single answer — that his campaign was “about the 100%.” But for some, it’s no substitute for simple voter contact. “It’s very important,” says Ed Del Pozo, a Romney supporter who owns a chimney business he says has suffered during the Obama Administration. “He needs to reach out to the community.”