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'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives onstage early Wednesday morning in Boston, moments before conceding defeat in the 2012 presidential election.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives onstage early Wednesday morning in Boston, moments before conceding defeat in the 2012 presidential election.

The postmortems for Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign are rolling in.

There are many explanations for what went wrong — and there's some validity to each of them. The staff wasn't the best. The Republican Party has a demographics problem as growing minority populations favor Democrats.

One big challenge Romney faced: Americans want to like their president.

Almost everyone who knows Romney personally does like him. But that likable guy was hard to find on the campaign trail.

First Impressions

In the earliest days of the campaign, Romney visited the self-proclaimed ice cream capital of the world: Le Mars, Iowa. He talked about his plans for the United States and why he thought he should be the Republican presidential nominee.

But when it came time to talk about himself, Romney outsourced the job.

"Come on up here, Craig. Come say hi," Romney told his son. "Tell them something about your family, or about your dad, that they don't know."

Craig Romney told an odd story about a family triathlon. His father's opponent was a daughter-in-law who had just given birth to her second child.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with supporters during a campaign event at the Family Table Restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa, in 2011.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with supporters during a campaign event at the Family Table Restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa, in 2011.

"It was kind of in the home stretch in the run there, and she had a slight lead on him," Craig Romney recalled. "And he said that in that moment, he decided that he was going to win that race or he was going to die trying."

The crowd laughed nervously. The story was designed to show Romney as a guy who fights to the very end. Instead, he sounded kind of heartless.

Romney never liked talking about himself. He thought it was unseemly. Also, talking about himself meant talking about his Mormon religion. The campaign wasn't sure how voters would feel about that. So he talked about other things — like the economy, and President Obama.

That created an opening his rivals quickly filled.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's team produced a video that talked about "a group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney," who were "playing the system for a quick buck."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry coined a phrase that immediately sank its talons into the narrative when he said: "There is a real difference between a venture capitalist and a vulture capitalist."

And Romney?

His campaign did not go the standard route of producing biographical videos introducing the candidate to voters. It produced plenty of ads. But almost all of them were attacks on the other guys.

Attack ads may hurt their target, but they also hurt the person creating the message.

A portrait emerged of Romney as a coldhearted, severely conservative robber baron.

And that was before the Obama campaign even lifted a finger.

Spontaneity Squelched

In person, Romney could be warm and funny. One on one, he interacted with people naturally. But when the cameras turned on, that side of him disappeared. Aides complained that he became some kind of bizarre, awkward automaton.

One staffer joked with reporters that he should tell Romney a session was off the record but tell the press it was on the record, because if Romney knew he was being recorded, his genuine side would skitter away like a rabbit.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a crowd in Pascagoula, Miss., in March that he was "learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits."
Evan Vucci / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a crowd in Pascagoula, Miss., in March that he was "learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits."

When Romney did speak off the cuff with cameras rolling, he often said things that came across as pandering, or out of touch.

In Mississippi, he opened a speech with: "I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits — strange things are happening to me."

In Michigan, where he grew up, Romney should have been a natural. Instead he said things that made him sound like a visitor from another planet: "The trees are the right height. The streets are just right."

This created a feedback loop in the Romney campaign. His staffers realized that when they let him talk, he screwed up. So they cut back on the spontaneous interactions.

He rarely dropped by restaurants unannounced as other candidates do. He almost never talked to the press. This created fewer embarrassing remarks, sure. But there were also fewer opportunities for genuine, illuminating moments.

By the time the primaries ended, Romney's favorability ratings were in the gutter: 29 percent, according to pollster Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

"Twenty-nine percent favorable is a pretty rough number for a person running for president of the United States," Kohut said.

'Let Mitt Be Mitt'

It wasn't until August that the campaign finally realized it had to change course. It created a moving, glossy, 10-minute video showing Romney with his kids and his wife.

"Probably the toughest time in my life," Romney said in the video, "was standing there with Ann as we hugged each other and the [multiple sclerosis] diagnosis came."

It was positioned to reach a huge audience. The plan was to show it on the climactic night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. It was set to open the hour of the convention that peaked with Romney's acceptance speech.

But at the last minute, the campaign bumped the video to the previous hour, when none of the TV networks were tuned in. And in the slot where the video was originally scheduled to play?

Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair, imagining Obama sitting there.

This sad story did have a turnaround after the first presidential debate. Romney won hands down. And the campaign decided, in its words, to "let Mitt be Mitt."

Within days, he was telling personal stories on the trail — including one about a 14-year-old with leukemia whom he met through his church.

"It was clear he was not going to make it," Romney said. "And I went into his room one night when he was in bed, and he asked me a very difficult question. He said, 'Mitt, what's next?' — he called me 'Brother Romney' — 'What's next?' And I talked to him about what I believe is next."

That's what Americans wanted to hear, too. The Mitt Romney who sat down next to that teenager with leukemia had not sat down with the American voter until then.

A Turnaround Too Late?

It was just one month before the election. But it clicked. Tens of thousands of people showed up at rallies chanting his name: "MITT! MITT! MITT!"

On Election Day, Romney dropped by a campaign office near Cleveland.

Phyllis Froimsen, 81, giggled like a teenager at the chance to meet him. "I think he's very handsome. He really is — he's a good-looking guy," she said, adding that meeting him made her feel "like a million bucks!"

By the time people went to the polls this week, something remarkable had happened: Romney's favorability numbers had climbed to a tie with Obama's.

But it wasn't enough.

Likable people can still lose.

Months ago, in one of his more candid moments with reporters, Romney talked about the lessons that he'd learned from his father.

George Romney also ran for president unsuccessfully, more than 40 years ago. Mitt Romney said his father never dwelt on defeat. He didn't obsess or rehash what had gone wrong. His father let go, and moved on.

Mitt Romney was asked whether he shares that trait.

He replied with one word: "No."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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