But as volunteers on Election Day began tapping in the names of voters, it became clear something was wrong.
The system was so overloaded with incoming data from volunteers that it exceeded capacity and crashed.
The Obama campaign, which had suffered a similar meltdown in 2008 and had been zealous about testing its systems this time around, had no glitches. Tens of thousands of Obama volunteers across the country sent real-time data from polling places, enabling workers at Chicago headquarters to ensure that expected vote totals were on track. More importantly, the field organization put in place by Jeremy Bird hit its goals, turning out the needed number of voters to reelect the president.
Call the president
As Romney’s campaign plane landed at Logan International Airport at around 6 p.m. on Election Day, he turned on his iPad and opened the Drudge Report. “Uh oh,” someone said upon seeing reports of early exit polls. But Romney still had hope.
Arriving at his suite in the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel, Romney received regular updates from his staff. He made small talk about the Patriots and the Celtics and played with his grandchildren. He was about to concede around 11:15 p.m when Republican strategist Karl Rove made his now-infamous appearance on Fox News Channel, insisting that his own network was wrong in calling Ohio for the president.
The concession call was canceled, followed by an hour of uncertainty. Then, after Fox executives dismissed Rove’s concerns and stood by the network’s projection, Romney said: Call the president.
Exit polls told a stunning story. The majority of voters preferred Romney’s visions, values, and leadership. But he had clearly failed to address the problem that Romney’s own family worried about from the start. Obama beat Romney by an astonishing 81 to 18 percent margin on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.”
That finding still frustrates those closest to Romney. His former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, who believed the campaign wasted an opportunity to highlight Romney’s life at the convention, said, “even at the end of the campaign, I never felt that the American people understood Mitt Romney’s genuine character and that is a terrible shame.”
Romney, who did not respond to an interview request, was ultimately responsible for his campaign’s failings. Republicans variously blamed factors such as a candidate who was too moderate or not moderate enough, a lower-than-expected turnout of white voters for Romney coupled with a heavy minority vote for Obama, and the president’s leadership during the Sandy storm.
Inevitably, much of the blame has been directed at Stevens, and he hasn’t ducked it. “If there’s blame to be thrown, throw it my way,” he said. But he said it should be noted that Obama had no primary opponents, giving him an enormous advantage.
In the coming months, Romney, ever the data-driven analyst, plans to contemplate how his political life came to an end, and what the party should do next, according to his son Tagg. The fight for the ideological soul of the party will play out for months. But recommendations are already pouring in for the party to create a ground-game infrastructure long before a nominee is selected, to catch up to the Democratic advantage in high-tech turnout operations, and to find ways to make the party more inclusive for minorities and women.
Romney himself will make the case to the party for many such changes, according to Tagg.
“Having been through it, you know so much more than when you haven’t,” Tagg said.