Thursday, November 8, 2012

How Race Slipped Away From Romney (DP: if you're like me, this stuff matters going forward)

How Race Slipped Away From Romney

BOSTON—Mitt Romney is one of the wealthiest men ever to run for president. And yet the lack of money earlier this year stalled his campaign, and he never really recovered.

The GOP nominee emerged late last spring from a long and bruising Republican primary season more damaged than commonly realized. His image with voters had eroded as he endured heavy attacks from Republicans over his business record. He also felt compelled to take a hard line on immigration—one that was the subject of debate among his advisers—that hurt his standing with Hispanic voters.

More than that, Mr. Romney had spent so much money winning the nomination that he was low on cash; aides, seeing the problem taking shape, had once considered accepting federal financing for the campaign rather than rely on private donations.

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The campaign's fate led on Wednesday to second-guessing and recriminations among Republicans chagrined that a seemingly winnable race slipped away. Some Republicans wondered whether the Romney campaign had misjudged the power of President Barack Obama's coalition, while others were questioning Mr. Romney's and the party's approach to immigration.

Spencer Zwick, the Romney aide who scrambled to raise enough money for the campaign. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)Back in spring, the Romney campaign's biggest worry was money. So the campaign's finance chair, Spencer Zwick, huddled with political director Rich Beeson to craft a complex schedule that took Mr. Romney to the cities that were prime real estate for fundraising.

It meant visits to places like California, Texas and New York—none of which were important political battlegrounds—while only allowing for quick side trips to swing states that Mr. Romney would need to win to become president.

On one level the strategy worked: Mr. Romney ultimately garnered some $800 million or more, putting him in close competition with Mr. Obama's robust fundraising effort.

But Mr. Romney paid a deep political price. The fundraising marathon reduced his ability to deliver his own message to voters just as the Obama campaign was stepping in to define the Republican candidate on its terms. Mr. Romney's heavy wooing of conservative donors limited his ability to move his campaign positions to the center, to appeal to moderate and independent donors.

The search for cash led him to a Florida mansion for a private fundraiser where Mr. Romney would make the deeply damaging, secretly recorded remarks where he disparaged and dismissed the 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes.

In the end, Mr. Romney lost nearly every swing state. Other factors contributed to his defeat, of course, including difficulty making voters warm to him and a dearth of support among Hispanics.

But in the eyes of top aides in both campaigns, that early summer period when Mr. Romney was busy fundraising was perhaps the biggest single reason he lost the election.

The Obama campaign spent heavily while Mr. Romney couldn't, launched a range of effective attacks on the Republican nominee and drove up voters' negative perceptions of Mr. Romney.

The problem: Mr. Romney had burned through much of his money raised for the primaries, and by law, he couldn't begin spending his general-election funds until he accepted the GOP nomination late in the summer.

The money crunch didn't totally take the Romney camp by surprise. Long before Mr. Romney secured the nomination, his closest advisers began plotting what it would cost to wage an effective campaign against Mr. Obama in the general election. Mr. Zwick, his finance chief, assumed the best way to handle cash needs would be to raise money from private donors, rather than accept the public financing the government offers presidential candidates, advisers said.

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Mr. Zwick looked at fundraising markets in every state and sketched out a schedule for Mr. Romney, his wife Ann, and his yet-to-be-named running mate. He decided the payoff from fundraising was worth the investment of the candidate's time. Analytical decisions like that one were the campaign's mantra. In interviews, staffers called it the "Bain way."

In August, when Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan was announced as Mr. Romney's vice presidential pick, Mr. Ryan's fundraising schedule was released the same day: 10 events by the end of the month.

Mr. Romney's finance team was vigilant in its efforts to ensure fundraising jaunts would be worth his time. Every other month the campaign's state finance chairmen met for a roughly four-hour meeting with Romney staffers. During the meeting, fundraisers had to stand in front of their peers and report whether they had hit their fundraising target.

If the local finance chairman fell short of their targets, the campaign sometimes canceled its fundraising stops there, a finance staffer said.

The real cost, though, was in the lost opportunity to use Mr. Romney to do other campaigning to introduce himself to general-election voters on his own terms. Aside from a five-day bus tour of six, mostly Midwestern states, Mr. Romney's highest profile summer campaign event was a problem-plagued overseas trip one aide called "total chaos." Even in that trip's schedule were nestled two fundraisers, one in London, another in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign and a super PAC helping it, Priorities USA Action, had unveiled ads attacking the centerpiece of Mr. Romney's resume, his record as the head of private-equity firm Bain Capital. The ads portrayed Mr. Romney as the heartless leader of a company that gobbled up companies and then slashed jobs.

The cash shortfall hindered the Romney campaign's response; to get through the sparse time, the campaign took out a $20 million loan.

Bob White, a former Bain executive who has long followed Mr. Romney, formed a team to research Bain investments so the campaign was prepared with a rapid response whenever one was questioned. Mr. White sought out more than a dozen chief executives of companies that benefited from Bain Capital investments to offer narratives of prosperous investments to balance out the ones that had soured. The campaign posted more than a dozen of them on a website lauding Mr. Romney's "sterling business career." But they couldn't afford to air the testimonials in television ads, an adviser said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Romney's two top strategists, Russ Schriefer and his partner Stuart Stevens, started to craft an ad strategy around their slim bank account. In focus groups, swing voters kept asking: What would Mr. Romney would do if elected?

They prepared spots explaining what Mr. Romney would do in the opening days of his presidency: approve construction of an oil pipeline to Canada, cut taxes and replace Mr. Obama's health-care law with "common-sense reforms." Yet the team didn't even have enough money to air their ad in the Washington, D.C., media market, therefore ignoring the sprawling suburbs of Northern Virginia—a key to a swing state that Mr. Romney badly needed to win.

As Mr. Romney struggled, a group of flush Republican super PACs stepped in to lend the presumed GOP nominee air cover. The biggest, American Crossroads and its affiliate Crossroads GPS, realized early that the Obama team would front-load its advertising to attack Mr. Romney when he couldn't return fire.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Crossroads adviser, referred to this phase as "the interregnum," and he reminded the group and its donors that former President Bill Clinton used this phase to undercut then Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 before he became the Republican presidential nominee.

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Between mid-April, when Mr. Romney effectively locked up the nomination, and the Republican convention at the end of August, the Obama campaign outspent the Romney camp $173 million to $75 million, according to data compiled by the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

But thanks in large measure to super PACs, Republicans outspent the Obama campaign and its Democratic allies over the same period by roughly $50 million, shelling out nearly $250 million compared with $198 million for Democrats, according to the same figures.

Still, the super PACs were better at attacking Mr. Obama than building up Mr. Romney, and the Republican's "likability" ratings with voters stayed low. With few public appearances and little to spend on ads, the campaign couldn't gain any momentum. An adviser described it as a campaign of "fits and starts."

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, kept making his conservative talking points to donors and never moved to the political center. It was during those months that Mr. Romney was filmed at a fundraiser in Florida dismissing 47% of Americans as Obama supporters because they receive government benefits or don't pay taxes and wouldn't be amenable to Mr. Romney's message of small government and lower tax rates. "My job is not to worry about those people," Mr. Romney said in the video. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The campaign also never figured out how to get beyond a damaging policy position from the primary season, a tough line on overhauling immigration laws. Mr. Romney refused to embrace legislation that might give some illegal immigrants long in the U.S. a path to citizenship, and instead advocated what he called "self-deportation."

Struggling to win the primary, the campaign's political team decided Mr. Romney needed to draw a contrast on the immigration issue to differentiate himself from the other Republicans on stage. The candidate's hard-line stance alienated Hispanic voters, which would prove a critical failing in the fall general election.

By early September, the Romney campaign was slumping and trailing badly in the polls. The first presidential debate offered what might be its last shot at a turnaround.

On a dreary Tuesday in early September, Mr. Romney and his top brass descended on the remote Vermont estate of Kerry Healey, Mr. Romney's former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, for debate preparations.

Beth Myers, a senior campaign adviser who was managing preparations, decided Mr. Romney had better dive into debate preparations—which the candidate disliked—head first. After just one mock session, senior Romney staffers were blown away—with Rob Portman, the Ohio senator picked to portray Mr. Obama.

Mr. Portman mastered Mr. Obama's policies and mannerisms so completely that Romney aide Peter Flaherty referred to him as "Mr. President" even when they bumped into each other on the trail.

"It was game on," said Mr. Flaherty, who played each of the three debate moderators.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, worked on compressing his responses into two-minute tidbits. Just days before the first debate, Messrs. Romney and Portman, dressed in suits, took the stage at the Back Bay Events Center in Boston for a final rehearsal. Aides there said Mr. Romney's answers were crisp, and he parried Mr. Portman's attacks with ease. Afterward, Lanhee Chen, the campaign policy director, called his wife and told her, "Mitt's ready."

Minutes into the first debate Romney advisers saw their candidate was poised and relaxed with an easy grasp of the facts behind his answers. Obama advisers could tell the president was off his game.

Throughout the debate, the Republican nominee highlighted his work with Democrats during his four-year stint as Massachusetts governor, reassuring voters he planned to reach across the aisle as president, too.

Romney advisers say he always intended to make that point, because it cut to the heart of voters' main complaint against Mr. Obama.

Ending partisan gridlock "was his biggest promise, and so therefore, it may be his biggest failure," Mr. Schriefer said.

The first debate reshuffled the race. Obama aides traded concerned emails about how to get their campaign back on track even before it concluded.

In the end, postdebate bumps in polls and money weren't enough to change his fate. On Tuesday, Mr. Romney managed to flip just two states Mr. Obama won in 2008, Indiana and North Carolina. (Florida remains too close to call.) Mr. Obama won the Electoral College contest easily.

By early evening Mr. Romney said he had only written one speech: A victory speech that stood at 1,118 words, unedited. Late that night, he delivered a concession speech that came in at just 646 words.

"I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes," Mr. Romney told a somber crowd in a not-quite-full ballroom at the Boston convention center. "But the nation chose another leader."

The day after his loss, Mr. Romney stopped by headquarters to visit staffers and thank them for their efforts.

He didn't hint at what he would do next, only saying "I'm not going away," one staffer said.

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