DES MOINES — There was a dark side to Mitt Romney’s close finish in the Iowa caucuses.
After first approaching Iowa with reservation and then scrambling hard in the final weeks to win, he leaves here with about the same share of votes he snagged four years ago in the Republican presidential caucuses.
“It’s been a great victory for us here,” Romney told supporters , adding: “We’ve got some work ahead.”
But his Iowa showing — finishing just eight votes ahead of former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — highlighted the big problems that still dog Romney: suspicions about his avowed conservatism, struggles to connect with voters and an inability to rally more Republicans around his candidacy.
“The result has some real fissure lines in terms of Romney being able to unite the party with the argument of electability,” said Robert Haus, a veteran Iowa operative who was co-chairman of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign here. “If you can’t convince members of your own party and expand that space four years later after millions of dollars of investments, how can you expand it this fall?”
This quandary has guided Romney’s decision-making all year. What Romney lacks in passion, he has tried to make up for with organizational precision and careful strategy. An examination of Romney’s efforts in Iowa illustrate how plentiful resources and smart tactics may not be enough for Romney to grow his support among important swaths of the party.
Romney’s team claimed momentum heading into New Hampshire, a must-win state. But what happened Tuesday night in Iowa, a presidential proving ground that has never been hospitable to the former Massachusetts governor, may say as much about the evolution of Romney’s campaign as anything thus far. That he found himself in a position to win in the end came down to equal parts luck, imperative and design, according to recent interviews with a dozen Romney advisers and senior campaign officials.
Even before he launched his campaign, Romney and his advisers calculated that he couldn’t win Iowa outright. In 2008, Romney left Iowa spooked and scorned after squandering $10 million and finishing a debilitating second. Romney never quite understood Iowa. And Iowa, it turned out, never quite understood Romney.
So this go-round, Romney’s team tried to engineer expectations to redefine what it meant to win. Although Romney has been the national front-runner, his team worked aggressively to try to make second or a strong third seem as good as first.
Instead of an aircraft carrier, Romney built a torpedo boat. He went from 50 staffers to five, from 11 months of television advertising to one. Through the fall, Romney barely existed here. He had skipped the August straw poll and made just two visits to the state all year.
Then, sometime this fall, an invitation arrived. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a natural ally who had not endorsed, was throwing himself a 65th-birthday bash at Adventureland. Romney wanted to go. But an influential group of Christian conservatives had a candidates forum the same day.
Romney skipped all such forums, and his advisers decided he couldn’t show up at one event and publicly snub the other. So he declined Branstad’s invitation, and his Iowa campaign stayed under the radar that much longer.
At the same time, however, Romney’s stealth Iowa effort quietly was gaining steam. An October Des Moines Register poll showed Romney tied for the lead and the social conservative base still scattered. Suddenly, there was an opportunity. And Romney, a competitive creature always, moved in to seize it.
When Romney returned to Iowa in early November, his campaign staged two slick events in his eastern strongholds. It sent a professional video crew to shoot an Iowa ad campaign.
“We always made it so you could pivot one way or another,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s national political director. “We weren’t building bricks-and-mortar here.”
A few weeks later, his effort came into full view. His campaign set up shop in a shuttered Blockbuster in Des Moines. Staffers relocated from Boston. They recruited as shock troops hundreds of small-business leaders to spread Romney’s free-enterprise message. And they mailed fliers and dialed likely caucus-goers.
On Dec. 1, a campaign that said it had spent less than $250,000 to date launched a television advertising blitz costing more than $1 million.
As Newt Gingrich surged in the polls, Romney’s advisers viewed him as the most durable threat. Vanquishing him in Iowa became imperative — the fastest and cheapest way to stop him. To that end, an independent super PAC run by former Romney aides unleashed nearly $3 million in negative advertising on the former House speaker.
Romney bore no legal responsibility for the onslaught, enabling him to deliver a mostly upbeat message here about his gauzy vision of America.
Two days after Christmas, something unusual happened. Romney touched down in Iowa for his last campaign sprint and supporters, hundreds of them, came to see him. After six days and 16 crowded events, on the eve of the caucuses, Romney exclaimed: “We’re going to win this thing.”
All along, Mitt Romney knew he had to win in Iowa. But first he had to define, in his terms, what it meant to win.
In the 2008 race, high expectations in Iowa became Romney’s Achilles’ heel. Romney ran a textbook campaign but was eclipsed by Mike Huckabee, a charismatic former Baptist preacher who consolidated the social conservatives who distrusted Romney.
In the years since, Romney maintained his network. He funneled $118,000 to state candidates and kept in touch with loyal supporters such as Joni Scotter of Cedar Rapids. She said Romney called her often, once just to say, “It’s so good to hear your voice.”
Early last year, months before Romney launched his 2012 bid, he dispatched two top aides — Matt Rhoades, who would become his campaign manager, and Beth Myers, a senior adviser — to Des Moines for two days of meetings with David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa strategist. The first agenda item was how to manage expectations such that, as Kochel said, “we define a win in Iowa appropriately.”
One of the trademarks of Romney 2.0 is flexibility. New Hampshire would be Romney’s lodestar, but Rhoades and his lieutenants decided to compete in Iowa as well, proceeding cautiously and allowing outside circumstances and the changing political climate to dictate when and how he would compete here.
“We needed to leave Iowa with the wind at our back and not at our face,” Kochel said.
For Romney, the challenge was to project momentum without actually growing his base of support. He started by dramatically scaling down his Iowa effort. Aides aggressively shaped a media narrative that Romney couldn’t win the Iowa caucuses — and wasn’t trying.
In the spring, Kochel and Sara Craig, the Iowa state director, started calling and e-mailing many of the 29,949 Iowans who caucused for Romney four years ago. They hired only one field staffer, Phil Valenziano, who toiled away like the solitary Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” out of an attic that didn’t have air conditioning until mid-summer. But Romney’s agitated supporters wondered where the candidate was. Over and over again, Romney’s team soothed them: “Hang in there. We’re coming.”
The turning point for Romney was in mid-October. Perry, once seen as the likeliest to consolidate conservatives, was tanking, Herman Cain was surging and Gingrich showed potential.
With no conservative emerging to spread-eagle the field, the opening was clear. Romney’s reliable quarter share of the vote looked better and better. Every two weeks, his brain trust in Boston made fresh assessments. And after each assessment, the candidate hungered to compete.
“You tell him you’re going to be in a race, and he wants to win it,” said Russ Schriefer, Romney’s senior media adviser. “His mind-set was: ‘Look, if you guys think it’s worth me going to Iowa, great. Send me there. . . . But can we win? And what does winning mean?’ ”
Staff writers Jason Horowitz in Des Moines and T.W. Farnam in Washington contributed to this report.