Why a strong RNC is important for Mitt Romney’s success

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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To win in November, Mitt Romney is going to need Karl Rove and Reince Priebus.

The good news is, both men appear to be up to the task.

Romney reportedly raised “more than $40 million in April for his campaign and the Republican National Committee,” according to his campaign. This is just shy of what Obama raised, and obviously a very good sign for Romney.

Rove’s group American Crossroads has raised a lot of money, too, and reportedly plans to spend $25 million. But the notion that they could or should do the heavy lifting was always born of necessity — hatched during a time when it looked like the RNC might be moribund.

Outside groups like American Crossroads will, of course, be hugely important this year. But some observers I talked to still believe political parties (albeit not as powerful as they once were) — because of special rule governing the spending of hard dollars versus soft dollars — will become even more important as the campaign heads into the fall.

“I can guarantee you hard money is going to be king in this election cycle,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told me during  a recent interview.

“Hard dollars are better dollars, all things considered,” agreed former Rep. Tom Davis, during a recent roundtable discussion after the Indiana primary.

This might be true for a few important reasons. First, unlike outside groups, the RNC and the Romney campaign can coordinate their message.

“[T]he most important advantage of candidate money on TV is it can say exactly what you need to say, and look exactly like it needs to look, with no silly barriers to navigate,” said Brad Todd of OnMessage Inc., a Republican media firm.

The law against coordination can be a double-edged sword. Karl Rove is obviously a shrewd operator, but not every outside group can be counted on to run an effective or helpful operation.

Consider, for example, reports in today’s New York Times that a group of “high-profile Republican strategists” are planning to spend $10 million attacking Barack Obama (and tying him to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)

If the ads work, Romney could be shielded from criticism. He would have a certain degree of plausible deniability. But what if they backfire? Potentially, conservative donors would be giving millions of dollars to a cause that actually hurts Romney. And while some of that money might otherwise stay on the sidelines (some donors won’t give unless they can remain anonymous), there might be an opportunity cost, meaning that money could have gone to the RNC to run more effective spots.

There are other reasons why a strong party is important for Romney. The RNC and the Romney campaign could team up to run joint ads (with two disclaimers) that would be given preferential treatment by TV stations — both in terms of cost (by law, federal candidates pay the Lowest Unit Rate) and guaranteed placement. The preemption problem, of course, won’t matter in, say, Montana, but on October 30, if you’re trying to run a TV ad in Ohio during Jeopardy, your ad probably won’t make it on air.

Still, not every media strategist I talked to agreed that this matters much.

“With super PACs able to buy at the highest dollar, stations will do everything possible to capture those dollars,” says Paul Wilson of Wilson Grand Communications. “Stations are extremely greedy.  Like a hungry dog, they will eat all the super PAC dollars they can and slobber all the way to election day.”

Nick Everhart of the Strategy Group for Media agrees hard dollars are generally better, but echoes Wilson, noting that “there is a lot of inventory on broadcast, cable, satellite, radio, online instream/preroll…reaching voters through paid media…” This is a good point. Fewer Americans are watching TV in the normal ways these days. Whether its TiVo or Netflix or Hulu, we are consuming information in different ways. So the institutional benefits that hard dollars offer may be relatively diminished these days.

Regardless, defeating Barack Obama who — along with the DNC may raise close to a billion dollars — will require everything Republicans can throw at them.

Romney is going to need a strong RNC — and lots of help from outside groups — to win. Team Romney should breath a sigh of relief that the RNC looks up to the task.

Matt K. Lewis