How Romney lost the race

  • Article by: LISA LERER , BLOOMBERG NEWS
  • Updated: November 7, 2012 - 11:44 AM
Mitt Romney lost the presidential race in the summer. It was the third week of July, and the Republican presidential candidate was flying across the Atlantic for an international tour designed to make him look like a commander-in-chief. The 2012 Summer Olympics in London were about to start, a global sporting event that campaign aides concluded would minimize media focus on the presidential campaign.

Back home, Democrats made a different calculation. That week, they aired a blizzard of ads undercutting the narrative of Romney's campaign by turning his strongest credential -- his business record -- into a liability. While Romney traveled abroad, $1.2 million worth of attack ads played 1,947 times on Ohio stations alone, charging him with shipping companies to China, jobs to India, and his personal wealth to tax havens in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

"Mitt Romney's not the solution. He's the problem," a narrator said in one of the spots.

Romney's foreign trip was just one week in his six-year quest to capture the White House. Yet the episode highlighted a decisive difference in the race: While President Obama's campaign adopted an aggressive, negative strategy aimed at exploiting his rival's weaknesses, the Romney team struggled to balance the business of running -- raising money and preparing for debates -- with the daily grind of politics. That caused them to miss opportunities to create early momentum and allowed the Democrats define his message.

The Romney team

Romney's campaign was dominated by an insular team that rarely tried to overrule the candidate. The captains of his effort, reclusive campaign manager Matt Rhoades and message man Stuart Stevens, were survivors from the 2008 primary run. Others, such as senior aides Beth Myers, Eric Fehrnstrom, Peter Flaherty and Spencer Zwick, had been with Romney for much of their careers.

Still, it was Romney, chief executive officer of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, who insisted on going to London. Rather than pushing back on the proposal, aides added Poland to the itinerary to make the trip seem like more of a foreign tour.

It was Romney who refused to release his tax returns or talk about his personal experiences as a Mormon bishop, and invited actor Clint Eastwood to give an unvetted, prime-time convention address that quickly became a national punch-line.

47 percent

And it was the nominee who donned a pundit's hat at a private fundraiser in May to say that 47 percent of Americans considered themselves government-dependent "victims" and would vote for Obama.

"I'm very proud of the campaign that we've run," he said Tuesday. "We left nothing in the locker room."

With the country still trying to recover from the financial meltdown, Romney and his team organized a campaign that would be focused on one issue: the economy. Romney would gain traction in the race by highlighting his background as a private-equity executive, presenting himself as an accomplished businessman with the know-how to get the country back on track.

Democrats, too, saw opportunities in Romney's biography. They spent months and millions of dollars painting him as a corporate raider, happy to ship jobs overseas, and a wealthy man eager to favor his rich friends over a suffering middle class. They had some help from Republican presidential contenders, who had labeled Romney, the co-founder of Bain Capital LLP, a "vulture capitalist" during the primary campaign.

Those attacks, and the ads that contained them, outraged Romney, who complained to advisers, donors and friends that Democrats were wildly misrepresenting his record. Still, his campaign struggled to effectively respond, and the caricature stuck.

Romney only reinforced that profile when he told voters in New Hampshire that he "liked to fire people," NASCAR fans in Florida that he had a lot of friends who were team owners, and supporters in Michigan that his wife owned "a couple of Cadillacs."

The video leaked from a spring fundraiser in Florida at which Romney uttered the 47 percent remark gave the Obama team the final boost they needed, with Romney's own words solidifying the profile created by his rivals.

Though he was never a natural study on politics, Romney became a meticulous one. After his father, George Romney, lost the presidential race in 1968, he never looked back, Romney recalled to friends. That trait wasn't passed down to the son, who relies on data-driven analysis.

Economy, evangelical voters

After he failed to win his party's nomination in 2008, he gathered his team at his Massachusetts mansion to conduct an in-depth review of the campaign. At that meeting, a consensus emerged on the lessons learned in defeat. Romney, who made his fortune digging into the financial minutiae of companies, had offered too many details on the stump. This time, he needed a more focused message and a leane operation.

Unlike four years ago, when Romney bounced from topic to topic, his campaign would stay centered on the economy and jobs. He traded in his suits for jeans, took to Twitter to tout his commercial flights on Southwest Airlines, and pared down his staff. Instead of pouring resources into dominating the Iowa caucuses, the team would use a win in the second primary contest in New Hampshire to quickly capture the nomination.

It didn't quite work out as planned: During more than 20 primary debates and almost a year of campaigning, Romney strained to defeat a series of rivals who rose and fell in the polls. He emerged from the contest with little time to build the ground-game operation he needed to compete with the Obama machine. By the end of the election, Romney had 40 offices in Ohio, compared with 131 for Obama. In Florida, Obama had 106 offices, more than double the 52 organized by the Romney campaign.

The primary complicated Romney's chances in other ways, too.

A former Massachusetts governor with a moderate record, Romney concluded he had to woo the evangelical voters and anti-tax Tea Party activists with hard-line positions on immigration, taxes and abortion.

"I fought against long odds in a deep-blue state," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 12. "But I was a severely conservative Republican governor."

Those were views the Romney campaign was never quite able to "etch a sketch" away, as Fehrnstrom had predicted in March that the campaign would do. Though Romney tried to soften his tone, his primary promise to make things so hard for illegal immigrants that they would "self-deport" lingered with Hispanic voters.

The Republican candidate's decision to embrace a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, without spelling out what offsetting spending reductions he would make helped the Obama team paint him as protecting the rich at the expense of the middle class. And Romney's unwillingness to flesh out the details of his plan in the general election allowed Democrats to claim that he was concealing his plans from the public.

A final blow to the Romney campaign came from Mother Nature, when superstorm Sandy touched down in New Jersey and sucked all the wind out of the presidential campaign.

With Obama's response to the storm winning praise from Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Romney's most prominent backers, Romney's team tried to shift attention to the enthusiasm of their base. They made ad buys in the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota to show momentum was still on their side.

"We're playing offense," spokesman Kevin Madden said Oct. 31. "We have an expanded map now" to get to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory.

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