Adapted from “Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America,” by Dan Balz. The book is due out Aug. 6.
Mitt Romney sat in an armchair at his home in Belmont, Mass., dressed in blue jeans and a checked shirt. It was late January 2013, almost three months after voters rejected his bid for the White House, and the next hour and a half marked the first time he had talked to a reporter about the campaign. I asked him what made him want to be president and why he thought he didn’t become president.
“I wanted to be president because I believe that my background and experience and my perspective and point of view would be helpful to get America back on track, to keep America the economic powerhouse it’s been and the champion of freedom here and around the world,” he said. “I happen to believe that America is on a course of decline if it continues with the policies we’ve seen over the last couple of decades, and we need to take a very different course, returning to more fundamental principles, if you will.”
I asked whether part of his decision to run was an effort to fulfill an ambition that his father, the late Michigan governor George Romney, never did. “I love my dad,” he said. “It’s fair to say that I probably would not have thought of politics had I not seen my mom and dad involved in politics. . . . But my decision to run for office was really in no way a response to my father’s campaign. It was instead a recognition that, by virtue of a series of fortunate events, I was in a position to run for president and potentially become president. And I felt if I didn’t do so, given that opportunity, I would have been letting down my country, my family and the future.”
Romney’s confidence about his reasons for running masked considerable ambivalence as he was preparing for the 2012 campaign. Based on what he told family members in private conversation, there were times when he seemed anything but certain about his commitment to running or his confidence of winning.
At Christmastime in 2006, he and his family — his wife, Ann; five sons; five daughters-in-law; and many grandchildren — had gathered at their home in Utah. They were there to make a final decision about a 2008 presidential campaign, which Romney had been pointing toward for more than a year. A video of their activities showed Romney energetically shoveling snow off the deck of their home, him sledding with his grandchildren, children sliding down stairs on mattresses, the general chaos of a house filled with people and constant activity. The video concluded with the family seated in the living room discussing the pros and cons of Romney running for president, with the prospective candidate taking notes on a pad of paper.
Family members cajoled and flattered. “If people really get to know who you are, it could be a success,” Craig Romney said. Tagg Romney, the oldest son, said: “I don’t think you have a choice. I think you have to run.” He added, “I look at the way your life has unfolded. You’re gifted. You’re smart. You’re intelligent. But you’ve also been extraordinarily lucky. So many things have broken your way that you couldn’t have predicted or controlled that it would be a shame not to at least try, and if you don’t win, we’ll still love you.”
“Maybe,” Romney interjected, to chuckles from his family. “Maybe.” Tagg picked up again: “The country may think of you as a laughingstock, and we’ll know the truth and that’s okay. But I think you have a duty to your country and to God to see what comes of it.”
At that Christmas gathering, the family took a vote on whether Romney should run. The five sons voted yes, their wives voted yes. Mitt and Ann Romney voted yes.
Four years later, in December 2010, when they gathered for their Christmas holiday, they faced a similar decision. This time they were in Hawaii and they sat together on a balcony one evening to share their thoughts about a second campaign. This time there was no video of the meeting, and the vote would have shocked a political community closely monitoring the preliminary maneuvering for the 2012 race. Even some of Romney’s closest political advisers might have been surprised. When the family members took a vote, 10 of the 12 said no. Mitt Romney was one of the 10 who opposed another campaign. The only “yes” votes were from Ann Romney and Tagg Romney.
Some of the reservations were personal. All of them knew how disruptive and invasive a presidential campaign would be. “None of us were looking forward to the process,” Tagg Romney said. “We’re a pretty private family, to be honest with you. Having that privacy yanked away was not going to be fun. That was an underlying reason — but not the driving reason. You tasted the bitter pill once, you didn’t want to go bite into it a second time.”
The more fundamental reason so many were opposed was that they feared the campaign would be as brutal as it would be uncertain. “The basic reason was I think a lot of them thought, looking at it, saying, ‘This is going to be a really tough primary campaign to win,’ ” Tagg Romney said. And if his father were to win, he would face an incumbent with $1 billion, much of it used to attack and attack and attack.
Mitt Romney had other reasons to think that not running might be the wiser choice. Winning as a moderate from Massachusetts who happened to be Mormon was always going to be difficult. “A lot of the thinking on the part of my brothers and my dad was, ‘I’m not sure I can win a primary given those dynamics,’ ” Tagg Romney said. The prospective candidate also knew the sheer physical and family toll another campaign would take. “He’s a private person and, push comes to shove, he wants to spend time with his family and enjoy his time with them,” his son said. “Even up until the day before he made the announcement, he was looking for excuses to get out of it. If there had been someone who he thought would have made a better president than he, he would gladly have stepped aside.”
In our interview, I asked Romney why he cast a “no” vote that day. “I knew how grueling the process was, and I felt that there may be others who could be more effective in actually winning and then getting America on course,” he said. “And I thought, for instance, if someone like [former Florida governor] Jeb Bush were to have run, that he might well be able to do what was necessary to get the country on track. I got into this out of a sense of obligation to the things I believed in and love for the country, but not because it was something I desperately wanted so that I could feel better about myself.”
Eventually, after looking over the field of potential GOP candidates, Romney decided he was the right candidate for the time.
“I didn’t think that any one of them had a good chance of defeating the president . . . and in some cases I thought that they lacked the experience and perspective necessary to do what was essential to get the country on track.”
Whatever doubts Romney harbored about running, his political advisers never lacked for confidence that he was in the race. They had been mapping the campaign for many months.
On Dec. 9, 2010, just weeks before the family vote in Hawaii, Romney gathered his senior advisers at the family’s oceanside home in La Jolla, Calif., for a full-scale discussion of a 2012 bid. The team was full speed ahead, and Romney had done nothing to slow the machinery. In fact, he had done everything a likely candidate needed to do. He had spent the previous year helping to elect Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat in Massachusetts of the late Edward M. Kennedy; meeting with prospective donors; promoting his book “No Apology”; campaigning around the country for and giving money to Republican candidates.
As with all front-runners, no matter how strong or fragile, Romney’s struggle would be a familiar one. He was starting off in an enviable position: better funded than his rivals, his message honed and sharper than in his first campaign, the confidence and serenity that come with having run before. He understood the pace of a campaign better than his rivals. But could he truly rally this new and more conservative Republican Party behind him? Or would he find himself in constant conflict over Massachusetts’s health-care law, his conservative convictions and his authenticity? Even Romney’s family put his chances of winning the nomination at no better than 50-50.
Romney confirmed to me that at one point in the spring of 2011, he was so pessimistic about his chances that he called Tagg early one morning to say he thought he would not run after all. He was being hammered by conservatives, in large part over the idea that the health-care reforms he passed as governor of Massachusetts would hurt Republicans’s ability to attack the president for the controversial “Obamacare” law that had fueled GOP gains in 2010.
Tagg Romney, who was heading to the airport for a 6 a.m. flight to New York, got a message from his father. The prospective candidate was scheduled for a conference call with his staff at 7 a.m. to discuss a Wall Street Journal editorial that skewered him on health care. Romney told his son, “I’m going to tell them I’m out.” “He said there’s no path to win the nomination,” Tagg Romney told me. “At that moment, he thought his chances were zero.”
Tagg Romney was alarmed by his father’s statement. He remembers thinking, “This can’t happen.” He believed that he and his mother were gradually winning the battle to make his father fully comfortable with running again. Now his father was somehow convinced that the party he sought to lead would never accept him as its nominee. Here was the most conservative major newspaper in the country bashing him and calling him a liberal. He didn’t see how he could win a primary under those conditions. Why waste everybody’s time and money?
“I recognized that by virtue of the realities of my circumstances, there were some drawbacks to my candidacy for a lot of Republican voters,” Romney said. “One, because I had a health-care plan in Massachusetts that had been copied in some respects by the president, that I would be tainted by that feature. I also realized that being a person of wealth, I would be pilloried by the president as someone who, if you use the term of the day, was in the 1 percent. Being Mormon would obviously be a challenge for some evangelical voters. I didn’t know whether that would persist or whether that would go away during the primaries. I think it was [top strategist] Stuart Stevens who said, ‘You know, our party is more Southern, and you’re from the North. It’s more evangelical, and you’re a Mormon. And it’s more populist and you’re a rich guy. This is going to be an uphill fight.’ ” Romney laughed. “And so I didn’t want to get into the race and make it more difficult for the leader of our party to beat the president. And so for me the gating issue was: Am I the person best able to defeat President Obama and therefore get the country on track?”
On the call, his advisers were insistent, Romney said. This will pass, they said. Be patient. This is part of the process. There will be good days and bad. You don’t need to worry about it. At the end of the call, Romney accepted their advice. He told me that he never shared the private thoughts he had expressed to his son.
“There were many other times between December and May where my dad had made up his mind not to run,” Tagg Romney said. “He was hoping for an exit. I think he wanted to have an excuse not to run.”
Romney acknowledged that there were also several times during the early stages of the 2012 nomination contest when he thought he might lose.
“Almost everybody was ahead of me at one time or the other,” he said. “And so I’d look at those and say, ‘Well, right now they’re more likely to get there, but I’m going to keep on battling.’ ” He said a betting person might not have put much money on him at those moments, although he always had confidence that he eventually would prevail. “But I think for certainly two or three weeks there — maybe longer — I thought it was more likely that Rick Perry would be the nominee, or even Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich.” He paused. “I have to tell you that, in the discussions I had with my senior staff, people like Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer said, ‘Look, Newt is not going to be the nominee. I don’t care what the polls say, he’s not going to be the nominee.’ I was far less sanguine about that.”
Eventually each of Romney’s Republican competitors had seen their moment, burned out and fallen by the wayside, and it was clear that he would be the nominee. Even before the process was finished playing out, Obama and his campaign were making Romney the focus of their attacks, targeting his record at Bain Capital, questioning his consistency on key issues and his ability to relate to middle-class Americans.
The bruising race ebbed and flowed, with Obama maintaining a lead in polls that appeared insurmountable at one point in September but would then become a much closer race. Romney began to believe he could win.
“There are so many things you could point to as being decisive,” he said. “For instance, I had a lousy September; I had a great October.”
His great October began in Denver, at his first debate with Obama. Not surprisingly, he remembered that night as the high point of the year. After months of Romney being pounded in ads, voters finally saw him stand face to face with Obama.
“People would get a chance to see that I was not the person that President Obama had been portraying me as being, and the things he was saying about me and my positions were wrong. I mean, his ads were not accurate. His ads were just pillorying me, saying things that were simply not true, and so I recognized this as a chance for people to see who I really am, and understand what I really believe.” When I said he seemed to reappear in that debate as “moderate Mitt,” he offered this interpretation of what happened: “People saw the entire me as opposed to an eight-second clip of me. . . . And if people watched me on the campaign trail and heard my stump speech, what I said in my stump speech was the same thing I said in that debate. I’m the same guy. But in the debate, they saw the whole thing.”
Romney believed the debates produced a fundamental change in his relationship with the party’s rank and file. “What had begun as people watching me with an interested eye had become instead more of a movement with energy and passion,” he said. “The rallies we’d had with larger and larger numbers and people not just agreeing with me on issues, but passionate about the election and about our campaign — that was something that had become palpable.”
As a result, he woke up on Election Day thinking he would win. “I can’t say 90 percent confident or something like that, but I felt we were going to win. . . . The campaign had changed from being clinical to being emotional. And that was very promising.”
His last hours on the trail, especially the arrival at the Pittsburgh airport on the afternoon of the election, where he was greeted by a spontaneous crowd of supporters, gave him added confidence. “We were looking at our own poll numbers and there were two things that we believed,” he said. “We believed that some of the polls that showed me not winning were just simply wrong, because they showed there was going to be more turnout from African American voters, for instance, than had existed in 2008. We said no way, absolutely no way. That can’t be, because this was the first time an African American president had run. Two thousand eight — that had to be the high point. . . . We saw independent voters in Ohio breaking for me by double digits. And as a number said, you can’t lose Ohio if you win independent voters. You’re winning Republicans solidly, you’re winning independents, and enthusiasm is overwhelmingly on your side. . . . So those things said, okay, we have a real good chance of winning. Nothing’s certain. Don’t measure the drapes. But I had written an acceptance speech and spent some time on the acceptance speech. I had not written a concession speech.”
Once Romney landed back in Boston, a different reality set in as he joined a conference call with advisers to review the early exit polls and turnout patterns. “We’re seeing much more turnout from groups that we thought would not be voting in as large numbers. The enthusiasm gap is not playing out in who’s voting as we might have expected. . . . This is not the picture we had expected.”
I asked Romney about the comments attributed to him on election night, that he was now deeply worried for the country. “I’m fearful that unless we change course, if we keep borrowing $1 trillion a year, this is — we’re walking along a precipice. I can’t tell you we’ll fall over it. Maybe we just walk along it for a year and the private sector will be able to pick up the gap and things will work out. That’s possible. But as a guy who’s occasionally walked the mountains, I don’t like to walk along the precipice. I like to walk back from the precipice.”
When Romney had mentioned his “lousy September,” it was an evident reference to what may have been the low point of his campaign: the “47 percent” video. He was in California and said at first he couldn’t get a look at the video. His advisers were pushing him to respond as quickly as he could. “As I understood it, and as they described it to me, not having heard it, it was saying, ‘Look, the Democrats have 47 percent, we’ve got 45 percent, my job is to get the people in the middle, and I’ve got to get the people in the middle,’ ” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a reasonable thing.’ . . . It’s not a topic I talk about in public, but there’s nothing wrong with it. They’ve got a bloc of voters, we’ve got a bloc of voters, I’ve got to get the ones in the middle. And I thought that that would be how it would be perceived — as a candidate talking about the process of focusing on the people in the middle who can either vote Republican or Democrat. As it turned out, down the road, it became perceived as being something very different.”
You mean that you were insensitive to a whole group of people? I asked. “Right,” he responded. “And I think the president said he’s writing off 47 percent of Americans and so forth. And that wasn’t at all what was intended. That wasn’t what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.” I interjected, “But when you said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility — ” Before I finished, he jumped in. “Actually, I didn’t say that. . . .That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”
Scanning his notes on an iPad, he began to read a long quotation, offering commentary as he read. At one point, he focused on the question posed at the Florida fundraiser. “Audience member: ‘For the last three years, all of us have been told this, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it in two months before the elections, to convince everyone you’ve got to take care of yourself?’ And I’m saying that isn’t my job. In two months, my job is to get the people in the middle. But this was perceived as, ‘Oh, he’s saying 47 percent of the people he doesn’t care about or he’s insensitive to or they don’t care — they don’t take responsibility for their life.’ No, no. I’m saying 47 percent of the people don’t pay taxes and therefore they don’t warm to our tax message. But the people who are voting for the president, my job isn’t to try and get them. My job is to get the people in the middle. And I go on and say that. Take a look. Look at the full quote. But I realized, look, perception is reality. The perception is I’m saying I don’t care about 47 percent of the people or something of that nature, and that’s simply wrong.”
I asked whether he thought that video helped to crystallize another issue he faced: Was it possible for someone with his biography and background and wealth to win the election at a time when there were widespread feelings that struggling families were being left behind while the rich were doing just fine?
“Well, clearly that was a very damaging quote and hurt my campaign effort,” he said. “I came back in October. I led in a number of polls. I think I could have won the presidency. We came remarkably close. Would I like to have been closer? Absolutely. But the number of votes that could have swung to our side could have made a difference. You have to congratulate the president on a very good turnout effort. We were not competitive on our turnout effort with his. So could I have won? Absolutely. And did I recognize that coming as a person who has a great deal of wealth that in that environment that would be an obstacle? Yeah, I recognized that. But I thought I could get over it.”
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