Summer Dem attack ads doomed Romney campaign

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:05 PM

Lisa Lerer

BOSTON - Mitt Romney lost the presidential race in the summer.

It was the third week of July and the Republican presidential candidate was flying across the Atlantic for an international tour designed to make him look like a commander- in-chief. The 2012 Summer Olympics in London were about to start, a global sporting event that campaign aides concluded would minimize media focus on the presidential campaign.

Back home, Democrats made a different calculation. That week, they aired a blizzard of ads undercutting the narrative of Romney’s campaign by turning his strongest credential - his business record - into a liability. While Romney traveled abroad, $1.2 million worth of attack ads played 1,947 times on Ohio stations alone, charging him with shipping companies to China, jobs to India, and his personal wealth to tax havens in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

"Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem," a narrator said in one of the spots.

Romney’s foreign trip was just one week in his six-year quest to capture the White House. Yet the episode highlighted a decisive difference in the race: While President Barack Obama’s campaign adopted an aggressive, negative strategy aimed at exploiting his rival’s weaknesses, the Romney team struggled to balance the business of running - raising money and preparing for debates - with the daily grind of politics. That caused them to miss opportunities to create early momentum and allowed the Democrats to define his message.

Romney’s campaign was dominated by an insular team that rarely tried to overrule the candidate. The captains of his effort, reclusive campaign manager Matt Rhoades and eccentric, message man Stuart Stevens, were survivors from the 2008 primary run. Others, such as senior aides Beth Myers, Eric Fehrnstrom, Peter Flaherty and Spencer Zwick, had been with Romney for much of their careers.

Still, it was Romney, chief executive officer of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, who insisted on going to London. Rather than pushing back on the proposal, aides added Poland to the itinerary to make the trip seem like more of a foreign tour.

It was Romney who refused to release his tax returns or talk about his personal experiences as a Mormon bishop, and invited actor Clint Eastwood to give an unvetted, prime-time convention address that quickly became a national punch-line.

And it was the presidential nominee who donned a pundit’s hat at a private fundraiser in May to say that 47 percent of Americans considered themselves government-dependent "victims" and would vote for Obama.

"I’m very proud of the campaign that we’ve run," he told reporters on his campaign plane Tuesday. "We left nothing in the locker room."

With the country still trying to recover from the financial meltdown, Romney and his team organized a campaign that would be focused on one issue: the economy. Romney would gain traction in the race by highlighting his background as a private-equity executive, presenting himself as an accomplished businessman with the know-how to get the country back on track.

As he reminded supporters in Boston Tuesday night during his concession speech, "I ran for office to lead the country in a different direction but the nation chose another direction," he said as aides and supporters teared up. Dozens of aides had bags packed and were ready to deploy to several swing states until as late as 11 p.m., even though many said they realized the race was lost hours earlier.

Democrats, too, saw opportunities in Romney’s biography. They spent months and millions of dollars painting him as a corporate raider, happy to ship jobs overseas, and a wealthy man eager to favor his rich friends over a suffering middle class. They had some help from Republican presidential contenders, who had labeled Romney, the co-founder of Bain Capital, a "vulture capitalist" during the primary campaign.

Those attacks, and the ads that contained them, outraged Romney, who complained frequently to advisers, donors and friends that Democrats were wildly misrepresenting his record. Still, his campaign struggled to effectively respond, and the caricature stuck.

Romney himself only reinforced that profile when he told voters in New Hampshire that he "liked to fire people," NASCAR fans in Florida that he had a lot of friends who were team owners, and supporters in Michigan that his wife owned "a couple of Cadillacs."

The video leaked from a spring fundraiser in Florida at which Romney uttered the 47 percent remark gave the Obama team the final boost they needed, with Romney’s own words solidifying the profile created by his rivals.

Obama swept key states in the Midwest, a region where voters had spent decades watching their manufacturing jobs drift overseas.

Ohio gave the Obama team a firewall against a Republican sweep. Tuesday night, Obama won the state plus Iowa and Wisconsin, the home state of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Though he was never a natural study on politics, Romney became a meticulous one. After his father, George Romney, lost the presidential race in 1968, he never looked back, Romney recalled to friends. That trait wasn’t passed down to the son, who relies on data-driven analysis.

After he failed to win his party’s nomination in 2008, he gathered his team at his Massachusetts mansion to conduct an in- depth review of the campaign. At that meeting, a consensus emerged on the lessons learned in defeat. Romney, who made his fortune digging into the financial minutiae of companies, had offered too many details on the stump. This time, he needed a more focused message and a leaner operation.

Unlike four years ago, when Romney bounced from topic to topic, his campaign would stay centered on the economy and jobs. He traded in his suits for jeans, took to Twitter to tout his commercial flights on Southwest Airlines, and pared down his staff. Instead of pouring resources into dominating the Iowa caucuses, the team would use a win in the second primary contest in New Hampshire to quickly capture the nomination.

It didn’t quite work out as planned: During more than 20 primary debates and almost a year of campaigning, Romney strained to defeat a series of rivals who rose and fell in the polls. He emerged from the contest with little time to build the ground-game operation he needed to compete with the Obama machine. By the end of the election, Romney had 40 offices in Ohio, compared with 131 for Obama. In Florida, Obama had 106 offices, more than double the 52 organized by the Romney campaign.

The primary complicated Romney’s chances in other ways, too.

A former Massachusetts governor with a moderate record, Romney concluded he had to woo the evangelical voters and anti- tax tea party activists with hardline positions on immigration, taxes and abortion.

"I fought against long odds in a deep-blue state," Romney told party activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 12. "But I was a severely conservative Republican governor."

Those were views the Romney campaign was never quite able to "etch a sketch" away, as Fehrnstrom had predicted in March the campaign would do.

Though Romney tried to soften his tone, his primary promise to make things so hard for illegal immigrants that they would "self-deport" lingered with Hispanic voters.

The Republican candidate’s decision to embrace a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, without spelling out what offsetting spending reductions he would make helped the Obama team paint him as protecting the rich at the expense of the middle class. And Romney’s unwillingness to flesh out the details of his plan in the general election allowed Democrats to claim that he was concealing his plans from the public.

Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his tax returns gave Democrats additional firepower to make the secrecy case. "What else is he hiding?" a narrator in an Obama ad asked viewers in September.

Aides in Boston disagreed over whether to release more filings, with some arguing it would only give Democrats more ammunition. The final decision, though, fell to the candidate, and he wouldn’t budge.

His opposition to handing over additional returns hinted at a larger problem: Romney, the affluent son of a former Michigan governor, remained uncomfortable discussing his wealth, estimated at $250 million. In factories and fast-food restaurants, he was an awkward presence, uneasy making small talk with voters. By mid-July, polling showed that those with negative impressions of him still outnumbered those with favorable impressions.

With his support ebbing, Romney decided to go for a bold vice presidential pick. He passed over Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohioan who could have helped in a pivotal state, and Chris Christie, the blunt-spoken New Jersey governor who could have brought a tougher tone to the race, in favor of Ryan, the darling of the small-government Republican base.

While the selection boosted internal party enthusiasm, Ryan’s positions against abortion, cutting Medicare and limiting government spending turned off independents. Hours before the new ticket first took the stage Newport, Va., Democrats began filling reporters’ emails with messages linking Romney to the details of Ryan’s record.

In an effort to soften Romney’s image, his son, Tagg, and close friend, Bob White, convinced the candidate to let voters see more of his compassionate side. Romney wasn’t inclined to share stories of those he had helped, aides said, saying that part of his life wasn’t political.

A biographic video debuted at the convention, showing home films of Romney with his family, and was replayed at events throughout the fall. Aides organized former parishioners to tell moving stories about how Romney, as a Mormon bishop, helped them get through personal tragedies. And on the campaign stump Romney began recalling people he knew who had died, such as a 14-year- old cancer patient whose will he helped write.

"It’s rare that you get the chance to tell someone how much you love them while you still can," he told voters in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Oct. 5.

The makeover came too late. He emerged from his convention with no bump in the polls, heading into the fall campaign trailing Obama in national surveys and seven points down in Ohio.

Campaign aides shored up donors with their belief that there were three big moments to move the race: the vice presidential pick, the convention and the debates.

With just one opportunity left, Romney intensified his preparations for his first faceoff against Obama. Immediately after the convention, he holed up in Woodstock, Vt., for days, rarely appearing in the public eye. He kept a light campaign schedule in September, carving out time for advisers to join him in hotel ballrooms for practice sessions.

When he wasn’t practicing, Romney was fundraising. With both candidates opting out of public financing, Romney and his aides grumbled about the amount of time they had to spend wooing donors to raise the money to match Obama after the costly primary. Romney spent much of the summer months collecting funds in Aspen and the Hamptons, rather than campaigning in Dayton and Daytona. In the three weeks after his convention, he attended more events for donors than for voters, holding 12 rallies and at least 18 fundraisers.

During that period of relative isolation, the video emerged from a private reception with fundraisers showing Romney calling Americans who accept government benefits "victims" likely to back Obama.

The president’s aides saw a potential game-changer in the race. At Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt ran into campaign manager Jim Messina’s office as soon as the report crossed his desk, bringing his computer to show his boss the video. In less than 48 hours, Democrats were up with attack ads in competitive states. While Obama aides knew the video was explosive, even they were surprised by how quickly his rival’s numbers began to drop nationally and in the contested states.

The low-level grumbling from Republicans in Washington neared panic levels, with top officials openly criticizing the management and strategy of the campaign on withholding the tax returns and the leaked tape.

"The advice I would give Romney is: Who cares about your tax returns? Release them," former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour told ABC News in a July 16 interview. "We need for this campaign to be about Obama’s record."

When Romney heard about the tape, he went into consultant- mode, asking questions about the context and how to handle the political fallout. While Romney remembered the fundraiser, he didn’t recall the specific remarks, said an aide.

The result was a haphazard response. With little notice to the reporters traveling with them, the campaign scheduled a press conference in the same Southern California building where Romney was hosting a fundraiser. Aides looked ashen when their boss told reporters - some still in running shorts - that his response had been "not elegantly stated."

It took almost three weeks for the candidate to fully disavow his statement.

The intense September training sessions paid off on Oct. 3 when Romney’s much-praised performance in the first debate boosted his standing in polls and quieted chatter of the video.

As soon as Romney stepped away from the podium, he knew that he’d done well. He searched through the crowd waiting behind the stage for senior adviser Myers, who was waiting with her arms open, and the two embraced.

The moment was a highlight for many in the campaign.

"It gave people around the country a sense that he was a winner, and people love to be with a winner," said Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and early Romney backer.

Yet in the following weeks, the economy also improved. Consumer confidence rose to a more than four-year high, home values started increasing, and jobs were added. That helped Obama make the case that his policies were working, particularly when analysts attributed much of the growth in the Midwest to the federal rescue of the auto industry - a decision Romney had opposed.

"I get that it’s a problem for him," Obama told voters in Springfield, Ohio, four days before the election. Romney tried to remove some luster from the auto bailout with a misleading ad in Ohio accusing the president - and Chrysler - of shipping auto jobs to China. The commercial boomeranged badly, as local Ohio newspapers called it inaccurate and Democrats dubbed it desperate.

"Now suddenly you’ve got a guy going out there saying something that’s not true? You don’t scare hard-working Americans trying to scare up some votes." said Obama.

A final blow to the Romney campaign came from Mother Nature, when superstorm Sandy touched down in New Jersey and sucked all the wind out of the presidential campaign.

With Obama’s response to the storm winning praise from Republican Governor Christie, one of Romney’s most prominent backers, Romney’s team tried to shift attention to the enthusiasm of their base. They made ad buys in the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota to show momentum was still on their side.

"We’re playing offense," spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters on the campaign plane on Oct. 31. "We have an expanded map now" to get to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory.

— With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington and Julianna Goldman and John McCormick in Chicago.

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