Romney was by all accounts stunned at the scale of his Nov. 6 loss, dropping quickly from public view after delivering a short concession speech to a half-empty Boston arena. Then came a series of tin-eared remarks this week blaming his loss on Obama’s “gifts” to African Americans and Hispanics, among others — putting him squarely at odds with party leaders struggling to build bridges with minorities.
“You can’t expect to be a leader of all the people and be divisive,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Friday on MSNBC, adding: “Someone asked me, ‘Why did Mitt Romney lose?’ And I said, ‘Because he got less votes than Barack Obama, that’s why.’ ”
It’s a remarkable fall from grace for Romney, who just 10 days ago held the chance of a Republican return to power at the White House.
The messy aftermath of his failure suggests that Romney, a political amalgam with no natural constituency beyond the business community, is unlikely to play a significant role in rebuilding his party, many Republicans said this week.
“He’s not going to be running for anything in the future,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who sharply criticized Romney’s comments about Hispanics. “He’s not our standard-bearer, unfortunately.”
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens strongly disagreed, calling Romney “the most popular Republican on the national scene at the moment,” given the votes he received on Election Day. Views of defeated candidates can change dramatically over time, Stevens added.
“Even those who have been critical of the campaign on our side realize in the end that Governor Romney was resonating with millions of Americans and was running the kind of campaign we could all be proud of,” Stevens said. “I think the governor can have the political road of his choosing. I have no idea what that would be.”
The fate of failed presidential nominees varies widely in modern times. Republican nominee and former Senate majority leader Bob Dole still wields influence as a party sage since his failed 1996 run, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is still sparring publicly with the man who defeated him in 2008. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost to President George W. Bush in 2004, is now a candidate to be Obama’s secretary of defense or state in the second term.
Former vice president Al Gore (D) went into the political wilderness for a time after his 2000 loss to Bush before remaking himself as an antiwar and environmental crusader. The most famous loser of all might be Richard M. Nixon, who was defeated in a presidential bid in 1960 and a California gubernatorial race in 1962, only to come back to win the White House in 1968.
Romney, by contrast, appears well on the way to disappearing, with a not-so-gentle shove from his own party. The private-equity firm founder, who listed his profession as “author” on campaign disclosures, has no political stage from which to operate and few voices of support to spur him on.
It’s possible that the 2012 nominee could be headed for the kind of political ignominy occupied by another former governor and presidential candidate from Massachusetts, Democrat Michael Dukakis, who enjoyed little national stature after his drubbing by George H.W. Bush in 1988.
“There is life after presidential defeat in some cases, but not all,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution. “There are still possibilities for service, whether public or otherwise. If you live long enough, there’s often a process of restoration.”
Romney aides and advisers have offered varying explanations for the Nov. 6 election results — which gave Obama 332 electoral votes and about 51 percent of the popular vote — including flawed polling and bungled turnout efforts. But much of the discussion has revolved around Romney’s heavy reliance on older, white voters and his overwhelming losses among blacks, Latinos, young women and other emerging demographic groups.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate, has pointed to high turnout in “urban areas” as a key factor in the outcome. But Romney, in a post-election call Wednesday with some of his key donors, went further by arguing that young and minority voters supported Obama because of the health-care law, immigration reforms and other “gifts.”
“The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African American community, the Hispanic community and young people,” Romney told hundreds of donors on the call, according to a Los Angeles Times account. “In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups.”
He added that “it’s a proven political strategy” to “give a bunch of money to a group, and, guess what, they’ll vote for you.”
That theory — which fails to explain how Romney lost whiter and more rural states such as Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Iowa — was quickly condemned as offensive by figures in both parties.
The remarks were reminiscent of Romney’s comments during a Florida fundraiser in May that 47 percent of Americans are government freeloaders who see themselves as “victims” and cannot be persuaded to take personal responsibility for their lives. Romney later disavowed the comments as “completely wrong.”
First-term Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is calling on his party to tackle immigration reform, said Romney’s latest remarks amount to “blame and disregard” for voters.
“I don’t like the fact that we lost this election; there’s no doubt about that,” Gardner said. “But I’m not going to place the blame for this election on the shoulders of people who didn’t vote for the Republican Party. We need to figure out the reason why we lost the election honestly.”
Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and adviser to conservative groups, said the comments underscore Romney’s fundamental weakness as a nominee. “Conventional wisdom in Republican circles was that Romney was the best candidate,” he said. “In hindsight, he may have been the worst choice.”
Indeed, one of the few people who seems to think Romney should have a future on the national stage is the reelected president, who has said he will seek out his vanquished opponent’s advice on the economy. “There are certain aspects of Governor Romney’s record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful,” Obama said during his first post-election news conference Wednesday.
So far, though, the two haven’t been in touch. “We haven’t scheduled something yet,” Obama said. “I think everybody forgets that the election was only a week ago.”
Karen Tumulty in Las Vegas and David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.