It was two weeks before Election Day when Mitt Romney’s political director signed a memo that all but ridiculed the notion that the Republican presidential nominee, with his “better ground game,” could lose the key state of Ohio or the election. The race is “unmistakably moving in Mitt Romney’s direction,” the memo said.
But the claims proved wildly off the mark, a fact embarrassingly underscored when the high-tech voter turnout system that Romney himself called “state of the art” crashed at the worst moment, on Election Day.
To this day, Romney’s aides wonder how it all went so wrong.
They console each other with claims that the election was much closer than realized, saying that Romney would be president if roughly 370,000 people in swing states had voted differently. Romney himself blamed demographic shifts and Obama’s “gifts”: federal largesse targeted to Democratic constituencies.
But a reconstruction by the Globe of how the campaign unfolded shows that Romney’s problems went deeper than is widely understood. His campaign made a series of costly financial, strategic, and political mistakes that, in retrospect, all but assured the candidate’s defeat, given the revolutionary turnout tactics and tactical smarts of President Obama’s operation.
One of the gravest errors, many say, was the Romney team’s failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate’s personal qualities and leadership gifts. The effect was to open the way for Obama to define Romney through an early blitz of negative advertising. Election Day polls showed that the vast majority of voters concluded that Romney did not really care about average people.
These failures are now the subject of scrutiny by national GOP officials who say they plan to “reverse engineer” the Romney effort to understand what went wrong. A number of Romney’s top aides stressed in interviews that, while they remain proud of their work, they feel an obligation to acknowledge their numerous mistakes so lessons are learned.
Rich Beeson, the Romney political director who coauthored the now-discredited Ohio memo, said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and offices,” Beeson said. “They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,” something that Romney did not have the staff to match.
Republicans, as it happened, had lost track of their own winning formula.
Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophisticated field organization to turn them out. Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.
But losing seemed a remote and unlikely prospect when Romney gathered advisers in Boston and planned the campaign they all believed would put him in the White House.
Romney’s inner circle of family and friends understood the candidate’s weakness all too well: He was a deeply private person, with an aversion to revealing too much of himself to the public. They worried that unless the candidate opened up, he would too easily be reduced to caricature, as a calculating man of astounding wealth, a man unable to relate to average folks, a man whose Mormon faith put him outside the mainstream.
Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, drew up a list of 12 people whose lives had been helped by his father in ways that were publicly unknown but had been deeply personal and significant, such as assisting a dying teenager in writing a will or quietly helping families in financial need. Such compelling vignettes would have been welcome material in almost any other campaign. But Romney’s strategists worried that stressing his personal side would backfire, and a rift opened between some in Romney’s circle and his strategists that lasted until the convention. More than being reticent, Romney was at first far from sold on a second presidential run. Haunted by his 2008 loss, he initially told his family he would not do it. While candidates often try to portray themselves as reluctant, Tagg insisted his father’s stance was genuine.
“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run,” said Tagg, who worked with his mother, Ann, to persuade his father to seek the presidency. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside. He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention.”Continued...