Spencer J. Zwick, who started his career a decade ago as a 22-year-old aide to Mitt Romney, now serves as the Republican presidential candidate’s finance chairman.
But Zwick isn’t employed by the campaign. Instead, he works through SJZ Inc., a Boston company he formed that has taken in nearly $5 million for “fundraising consulting” from Romney this election season.
Zwick is among a close-knit group of senior Romney advisers who have created or work at firms that have collected millions of dollars in consulting fees from the campaign. In some cases, they also are bringing in money from the super PAC aiding Romney’s run for the White House, according to recent campaign disclosures.
Although many candidates hire firms created by former staff members, the extent of the Romney campaign’s reliance on such companies is unusual for a major presidential bid, experts say. Many of the firms Romney uses are run by former aides from his 2008 campaign.
The arrangement not only benefits several of those close to the former Massachusetts governor but also makes it harder to determine how he is spending his donors’ money, because salaries and other details about outside operations are kept under wraps.
Romney campaign officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said their use of consultants is no different than that of numerous other candidates, including President Obama.
Most political campaigns hire consultants to produce ads, run polling and perform other specialized work. Obama, for example, has a clutch of longtime advisers, such as David Axelrod, who run outside consulting shops that do business for the campaign.
But a number of Republican political strategists with no preferences in this presidential contest said Romney’s heavy use of consultants for fundraising is particularly rare in a national race.
Romney has paid Zwick’s firm $4.6 million for fundraising consulting, for example, compared with the $75,000 Obama reported for the same type of expenditure.
“The bottom line is that a lot of consultants are making a lot of money from Mitt Romney, with mixed results,” said one unaffiliated GOP campaign finance lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
A more conventional approach was used by George W. Bush, who kept most of his top aides in house and even required famed GOP political adviser Karl Rove to sell his consulting shop before coming on board.
“That was the model that Bush followed, that [Robert J.] Dole followed,” said Michael Toner, a campaign finance lawyer who worked on the Bush team. “It was seen as cost-effective. You have really smart people working directly for the campaign who are 100 percent focused on the presidential race. Consulting costs can be minimized, and you have exclusive control.”
Many campaign strategists nevertheless say they remain impressed by Romney’s organization, which has outraised the rest of the GOP field and has been helped by a well-funded super PAC. The campaign has employed uncommon fundraising strategies such as telethon-type events, in which chief executives and other wealthy supporters compete to raise as much money as possible for the campaign in a single day.
“They’re doing some very intriguing things, including some that are being used at this level for the first time,” said Dan Morgan, a congressional fundraising consultant in Northern Virginia. “If I look at who’s raising the most money and who’s spending the most money, it’s obviously working for them. Overall, they seem to be doing it very well.”
Compared with 2008, when Romney used $42 million of his own money to keep his effort afloat, he has run a notably leaner campaign with less overall spending. But this race has turned out to be tougher than envisioned, forcing the campaign to burn through most of the $64 million it has raised.
Romney has spent $300,000 more on fundraising efforts than Obama has and has brought in less than half as much money, records show. He has relied primarily on wealthy donors who have already given the maximum allowable contributions for the primary, and he has had trouble raising smaller donations.
Zwick and other Romney consultants did not respond to requests to comment on their work. One senior campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended the use of consultants with close connections to the campaign and disagreed that the practice was more pronounced this year.
“We are very happy with our fundraising totals,” the official said, adding that “Obama is the president and is able to raise more money in coordination with the” Democratic Party.
A big chunk of Romney’s outside operation is housed 20 miles north of Boston in an office building in Beverly, Mass., which is listed as the address for four firms doing work for the Romney campaign, disclosure records show.