It was two weeks before Election Day when Mitt Romney’s political director signed a memo that all but ridiculed the notion that the Republican presidential nominee, with his “better ground game,” could lose the key state of Ohio or the election. The race is “unmistakably moving in Mitt Romney’s direction,” the memo said.
But the claims proved wildly off the mark, a fact embarrassingly underscored when the high-tech voter turnout system that Romney himself called “state of the art” crashed at the worst moment, on Election Day.
To this day, Romney’s aides wonder how it all went so wrong.
They console each other with claims that the election was much closer than realized, saying that Romney would be president if roughly 370,000 people in swing states had voted differently. Romney himself blamed demographic shifts and Obama’s “gifts”: federal largesse targeted to Democratic constituencies.
But a reconstruction by the Globe of how the campaign unfolded shows that Romney’s problems went deeper than is widely understood. His campaign made a series of costly financial, strategic, and political mistakes that, in retrospect, all but assured the candidate’s defeat, given the revolutionary turnout tactics and tactical smarts of President Obama’s operation.
One of the gravest errors, many say, was the Romney team’s failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate’s personal qualities and leadership gifts. The effect was to open the way for Obama to define Romney through an early blitz of negative advertising. Election Day polls showed that the vast majority of voters concluded that Romney did not really care about average people.
These failures are now the subject of scrutiny by national GOP officials who say they plan to “reverse engineer” the Romney effort to understand what went wrong. A number of Romney’s top aides stressed in interviews that, while they remain proud of their work, they feel an obligation to acknowledge their numerous mistakes so lessons are learned.
Rich Beeson, the Romney political director who coauthored the now-discredited Ohio memo, said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and offices,” Beeson said. “They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,” something that Romney did not have the staff to match.
Republicans, as it happened, had lost track of their own winning formula.
Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophisticated field organization to turn them out. Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.
But losing seemed a remote and unlikely prospect when Romney gathered advisers in Boston and planned the campaign they all believed would put him in the White House.
Romney’s inner circle of family and friends understood the candidate’s weakness all too well: He was a deeply private person, with an aversion to revealing too much of himself to the public. They worried that unless the candidate opened up, he would too easily be reduced to caricature, as a calculating man of astounding wealth, a man unable to relate to average folks, a man whose Mormon faith put him outside the mainstream.
Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, drew up a list of 12 people whose lives had been helped by his father in ways that were publicly unknown but had been deeply personal and significant, such as assisting a dying teenager in writing a will or quietly helping families in financial need. Such compelling vignettes would have been welcome material in almost any other campaign. But Romney’s strategists worried that stressing his personal side would backfire, and a rift opened between some in Romney’s circle and his strategists that lasted until the convention. More than being reticent, Romney was at first far from sold on a second presidential run. Haunted by his 2008 loss, he initially told his family he would not do it. While candidates often try to portray themselves as reluctant, Tagg insisted his father’s stance was genuine.
“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run,” said Tagg, who worked with his mother, Ann, to persuade his father to seek the presidency. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside. He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention.”
Adding to the discomfort was Romney’s inability to persuade one of his most valued advisers to join the team. Mike Murphy, who had engineered Romney’s successful race for governor of Massachusetts, understood Romney like few others. While Murphy said he was flattered by Romney’s overture, he decided to remain in California, where he was working as a screenwriter and part-time political commentator. So Romney eventually picked as his strategist a man with whom Murphy had repeatedly clashed, Stuart Stevens.
Stevens had helped guide the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, but he was equally well known as an author and screenwriter. He had scripted episodes of “Northern Exposure” and told remarkable stories about himself, such as when he wrote in Outside magazine about taking “some of the banned performance-enhancing drugs that are often abused in the endurance sports I participate in, like cycling and cross-country skiing.” He seemed like an unusual match for the strait-laced Romney, but some felt that was precisely what the candidate needed.
Stevens had clashed over the years with other campaign consultants, and sniping about his work from the outside came quickly. He had worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign, but had to share power with other advisers, an unworkable arrangement. This time, Romney promised Stevens and partner Russ Schriefer full control.
Stevens wanted to keep the focus on Obama’s handling of the economy and what Romney would do to fix it. A candidate’s biography was of lesser importance. “When you come into a job interview, you don’t start showing family pictures,” Stevens said in a postelection interview.
Family members kept pushing for a film or series of advertisements that would show how Romney had helped average people in personal ways, based on Tagg’s list of 12 people, along with clips about how Romney raised his family. The film project was to be overseen by documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley, a longtime family friend who had been allowed to film portions of Romney’s 2008 campaign. But the plan was rejected, leading some in the family to blame Stevens.
Stevens said he did not kill the documentary. But he said he did have a strategic vision that went another way, one he grounded in four questions he put to voters in focus groups.
“There [were] different areas that you could go into,” Stevens said. “Talk about Mitt’s business record, Mitt‘s personal story, what Mitt would do as president . . . and why Barack Obama is bad. We tested all four equally. We were open to doing any combination, and the one that tested far and away the best, people wanted to know what Mitt Romney would do as president.”
Romney made the final call: This was Stevens’ campaign to win or lose. And the outlook seemed bright. The veteran GOP pollster Romney hired, Neil Newhouse, found that only 20 percent of those surveyed thought the country was on the right track.
It was, Newhouse said, “extraordinarily negative. We figured those numbers probably wouldn’t hold, but if they were anything near that, we were probably in very good shape.”
President Obama’s strategy had very different roots.
His national field director, Jeremy Bird, drew his inspiration from the time around 2001 when he witnessed, as a young Harvard Divinity student, a group of African-American students in a Roxbury church, pressing their case for school funding with members of the Boston City Council.
It was a model, in miniature, of grass-roots engagement that would shape Bird’s career in politics and attract him to Obama, who had himself been a community organizer.
Bird was confident that Obama would commit massive resources to building an organization that zeroed in on individual voters. It would be like that Roxbury church encounter, multiplied a thousand times.
“I had watched a group of young people come together; I watched them organize at local level,” Bird said.
And Bird had learned another lesson. He lived in Massachusetts when Romney was elected governor, had studied him and voted against him, and was determined to do everything possible to prevent him from becoming president.
So it was that Bird and his colleagues drew up plans to expand the electorate into one that could reelect Obama. In Ohio, for example, a “barber shop and beauty salon” strategy was designed to get likely Obama supporters, particularly African-Americans, to register to vote when they went for a haircut. “Faith captains” were assigned to churches to encourage parishioners to turn out for Obama. “Condo captains” were told to know every potential Obama voter in their building. The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics: Each Obama worker would be responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney’s team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference.
A first-class ground operation in 2012 required leading-edge technology, and here also an early gap opened between Obama and Romney.
The goal was to create the political equivalent of a Facebook or Twitter, a platform that would change the way presidential campaigns are run. And Obama’s team found just the man for the job: a 34-year-old programming whiz named Harper Reed, who got his start as an 11-year-old pecking on an Apple II and had never held a top job in a political campaign. With his wildly flowing black hair, big earrings, and bigger glasses, he was not long on humility — his website proclaimed that “I am pretty awesome” — but his talents were real.
As Reed assembled his team, he insisted on being given leeway to hire some of the best techies in the country, from Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter. Moreover, he insisted the team be largely internal, rather than have the enterprise be divided up among outside consultants.
The group was haunted by the failure of a similar venture in Obama’s 2008 campaign, when a get-out-the-vote computer program called Houdini crashed and could have cost the election if the race had been closer. This time, Reed and his team created a successor that they named Gordon, after the person who punched Houdini in the stomach shortly before the magician died.
Separately, the Obama team created a system called Narwahl, named after an Arctic whale, which linked disparate computer programs together. Narwahl and Gordon would be tested repeatedly in exercises that Obama’s team called “game day.” Every imaginable failure would be thrown at the systems — hacker attacks, database meltdowns, Internet failures — and the team would be challenged to write up a manual for how to deal with each disaster. It was, they said, more fun than the fantasy war game Dungeons & Dragons.
Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, did not have the luxury of Reed’s time or resources. Moffatt came from the world of politics, had worked at the Republican National Committee and had long believed Romney would be the best GOP candidate for president.
Moffatt played catch-up from the start. He had 14 people working for him in the primaries and then, around May 1, he submitted a general election plan that required at least 110 people and would eventually have 160. Obama was far ahead. Moffatt recalled his assignment in daunting terms: “Can we do 80 percent of what the Obama campaign is doing, in 20 percent of the time, at 10 percent of the cost?”
Moffatt’s team nonetheless managed to create big projects on short notice. For example, one of the highest priorities was a Facebook app that would enable the Romney campaign to locate voters who otherwise could not be found by telephone. By some estimates, half of younger voters do not have a landline or cannot be reached by cellphone. Three weeks before Election Day, the app was unveiled by the campaign and downloaded by 40,000 Romney supporters.
There was only one problem. Months earlier, Obama’s campaign had developed a similar app, which had been downloaded by 1 million people.
David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift.
For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy.
“I questioned why they didn’t spend more time and energy early defining Romney in a fuller way so people could identify with him,” Axelrod said in a postelection interview.
“One of my conclusions is so much of his life was kind of walled off from use. His faith is important to him, but they didn’t want to talk about that. His business was important, but they didn’t want to talk about that much. His governorship was important to him, but his signature achievement [health care] was unhelpful to them in the Republican primary. My feeling is you have to build a candidacy on the foundation of biography. That is what authenticates your message. I was always waiting for that happen.”
Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond.
From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-
deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.
The candidate’s life
Beth Myers, one of Romney’s top advisers, had a nagging worry. Obama’s campaign was running ads in markets such as suburban Virginia designed to appeal to women voters. Myers wondered if the Romney campaign should invest in a direct response.
“I wish I had expressed my deep concern more vociferously at that point; this was May, June, when they really went on the offense,” Myers said. “I remember thinking, ‘This bothers me.’ ’’
That worry was a window into greater concerns about how the Romney campaign was handling its advertising money.
In campaign postmortems, Republicans have been criticized for spending too much on advertising compared with Democrats, even as some reports said Obama was able to book television spots more cheaply, run more ads in key states, and reach key voters more effectively.
The Obama campaign used a program called “the optimizer” that linked data from its voter databases, focus groups, and television ratings to determine how to reach people who do not typically see campaign ads. As a result, Obama purchased ads on channels such as TV Land and Hallmark that were watched by voters who rarely saw news programs where ads often appear.
Stevens said the criticism of the Romney ad strategy is misguided. When advertising by the campaigns is compared, he said, Obama spent twice as much as Romney.
In any case, as Romney continued to run negative ads, the pressure mounted from Romney’s family and friends to tell more about his life as the GOP convention approached.
Ann Romney, who had long pushed for more focus on her husband’s personal story, made her point directly in a convention video: “If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they’ve lived their life.” A Vermont couple appeared on the convention stage to tell the emotional story of how Romney, as a Mormon leader, helped their dying 14-year-old son, David Oparowski, write his will. “How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski, the boy’s mother, said in her speech.
But Romney’s campaign, still concerned about highlighting Mormonism and taking the focus away from the economy, arranged for the testimonial and an accompanying video to come before commercial television networks broadcast the proceedings. Instead, prime-time viewers saw Clint Eastwood pretending to talk to Obama in an empty chair.
Shortly after Romney wrapped up the nomination, he stopped by for a conversation with Myers to discuss an idea that he believed would be the key to winning the presidency. He called it the Manhattan Project.
Named after the government program to build the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project was designed to turn a perceived weakness — Romney’s much-anticipated matchup with Obama in the fall debates — into the campaign’s greatest strength.
So Romney proposed months of intense preparation, with 16 mock debates. (Obama did 11.) Then, just as Romney seemed ready, the campaign received news that a video had been leaked in which the candidate characterized 47 percent of Americans as “victims” who wanted government benefits and would never vote for him. That left the impression that Romney was referring not just to people on welfare but also to recipients of Social Security and veterans benefits. It seemed to confirm the worst view of Romney, that he didn’t care about average people. His poll numbers plummeted.
If the Manhattan Project was ever needed, it was now.
Obama played right into the strategy. After some lethargic rehearsals, in which Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts played the Romney role, Obama never mentioned the 47 percent controversy during the first debate. The president skipped at least two practice sessions at which he was going to review material. Obama seemed as unready as Romney was ready. “This was an exposure of Mitt Romney that people hadn’t seen before,” said Newhouse. “He had been a caricature who’d outsourced jobs, offshored jobs. The Mitt Romney they saw in debates was articulate, thoughtful, and had a plan.” Romney’s rating went up by 9 points in some key states, although that subsided as Obama performed strongly in the subsequent two debates.
Romney’s aides were gleeful. They had — fortuitously, it now seemed — made a strategic decision to spend heavily on October advertising, the opposite of the Obama campaign’s approach.
This surprised Axelrod, who questioned what he called Romney’s “backloaded” ad strategy, saying he could not think of a single effective ad in any presidential campaign that began airing after Labor Day.
Stevens, however, thought money for late advertising was important. “It was a hard decision,” Stevens said at a post-election seminar at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, “but we enjoyed spending that money in October.”
Like the Alamo
Tagg Romney could not figure it out. Why had Obama spent so heavily during the primaries when he had no primary opponent? Only later did Tagg realize this was a key to Obama’s victory.
“We were looking at all the money they were spending in the primary and we were thinking ‘what are they spending all their money on? They’re wasting a lot of money.’ They weren’t. They were paying staffers in Florida” and elsewhere.
If Romney’s Manhattan Project had been debate preparation, then Obama’s was the ground game.
Building on its 2008 field organization, Obama’s campaign had far more people on the ground, for longer periods, and backed by better data. In Florida, for example, the Romney campaign said it had fewer than 200 staff members on the ground, a huge commitment of its total of 500 nationwide. But the Obama campaign had 770 staff in Florida out of 3,000 or so nationwide.
“They had more staff in Florida than we had in the country, and for longer,” said Romney adviser Ron Kaufman.
Indeed, in swing state after swing state, the Obama field team was much bigger than the Romney troops. Obama had 123 offices in Ohio, compared with Romney’s 40. Obama had 59 offices in Colorado, compared with Romney’s 15, according to statistics compiled by the Obama campaign.
Stevens said he expressed alarm about the Democrat’s early advantage in money and staff. He said Obama’s decision to reject public financing for the fall campaign (a move Romney followed) worked to Obama’s advantage because Obama used primary funds to prepare for the general election, and it meant there was no ceiling on how much could be spent.
“It is like sitting in the Alamo,” Stevens said in the postelection interview, comparing the siege by Mexican troops in 1836 to competing against the superior forces of the Obama campaign. “Yes, it is alarming. There are a lot of Santa Anna’s soldiers out there.”
Romney’s confidence remained strong as Election Day approached. While public polls showed Obama in control, some of Romney’s internal polls showed him winning.
But Obama’s field organization was too strong. In Florida, 266,000 more Hispanics voted than four years earlier. “They altered the face of the election by driving up the Latino turnout,” Romney political director Rich Beeson said. “They told us they would do it. I didn’t think they would do it, and they did.”
Ohio was the greatest surprise of all. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse calculated that 209,000 more African-Americans voted this year than in 2008 in Ohio, while 329,000 fewer whites had voted.
“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Newhouse said. “If that is what the Obama campaign achieved, hats off to them.’’
A key difference was the depth of voter contact. Romney took comfort in polls that showed voters had been contacted equally by both campaigns. But the polls were misleading, perhaps equating a recorded robocall on the phone with a house call by a worker.
“It wasn’t well understood what they were doing,” Newhouse said. “We asked the question in polls, ‘Have you been contacted by campaigns?’ Our overall contact was pretty similar. But their in-person contact was beating us by 3 to 2.”
Kevin Madden, a longtime Romney confidant who served as a spokesman in the final months of the campaign, said that he regrets that the campaign did not adhere to what worked for Republicans in 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection with an innovative ground game.
“We were in position of arguing against something that I had seen proven correct in 2004,” Madden said. “We have to remember that the nature of campaigns has changed. We did it in right in 2004 and we have lost a step.”
As dawn broke on Election Day, 800 Romney volunteers filled the floor of TD Garden in Boston. This was the centerpiece of the campaign’s turnout operation, code named ORCA, that was supposed to swallow Obama’s Narwhal program. But the Romney team was so determined to keep ORCA secret that it had never run a test at TD Garden; it had only gone through some lesser runs in a different building.
The ORCA workers were supposed to be in contact with more than 30,000 volunteers stationed at polling places across the country. Those volunteers were told to bring a smartphone and go to a secure Web page on which they could report the names of everyone who voted. In this way, the Romney campaign could determine if supporters had failed to show up and urge them to vote.
But as volunteers on Election Day began tapping in the names of voters, it became clear something was wrong.
The system was so overloaded with incoming data from volunteers that it exceeded capacity and crashed.
The Obama campaign, which had suffered a similar meltdown in 2008 and had been zealous about testing its systems this time around, had no glitches. Tens of thousands of Obama volunteers across the country sent real-time data from polling places, enabling workers at Chicago headquarters to ensure that expected vote totals were on track. More importantly, the field organization put in place by Jeremy Bird hit its goals, turning out the needed number of voters to reelect the president.
Call the president
As Romney’s campaign plane landed at Logan International Airport at around 6 p.m. on Election Day, he turned on his iPad and opened the Drudge Report. “Uh oh,” someone said upon seeing reports of early exit polls. But Romney still had hope.
Arriving at his suite in the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel, Romney received regular updates from his staff. He made small talk about the Patriots and the Celtics and played with his grandchildren. He was about to concede around 11:15 p.m when Republican strategist Karl Rove made his now-
infamous appearance on Fox News Channel, insisting that his own network was wrong in calling Ohio for the president.
The concession call was canceled, followed by an hour of uncertainty. Then, after Fox executives dismissed Rove’s concerns and stood by the network’s projection, Romney said: Call the president.
Exit polls told a stunning story. The majority of voters preferred Romney’s visions, values, and leadership. But he had clearly failed to address the problem that Romney’s own family worried about from the start. Obama beat Romney by an astonishing 81 to 18 percent margin on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.”
That finding still frustrates those closest to Romney. His former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, who believed the campaign wasted an opportunity to highlight Romney’s life at the convention, said, “even at the end of the campaign, I never felt that the American people understood Mitt Romney’s genuine character and that is a terrible shame.”
Romney, who did not respond to an interview request, was ultimately responsible for his campaign’s failings. Republicans variously blamed factors such as a candidate who was too moderate or not moderate enough, a lower-than-expected turnout of white voters for Romney coupled with a heavy minority vote for Obama, and the president’s leadership during the Sandy storm.
Inevitably, much of the blame has been directed at Stevens, and he hasn’t ducked it. “If there’s blame to be thrown, throw it my way,” he said. But he said it should be noted that Obama had no primary opponents, giving him an enormous advantage.
In the coming months, Romney, ever the data-driven analyst, plans to contemplate how his political life came to an end, and what the party should do next, according to his son Tagg. The fight for the ideological soul of the party will play out for months. But recommendations are already pouring in for the party to create a ground-game infrastructure long before a nominee is selected, to catch up to the Democratic advantage in high-tech turnout operations, and to find ways to make the party more inclusive for minorities and women.
Romney himself will make the case to the party for many such changes, according to Tagg.
“Having been through it, you know so much more than when you haven’t,” Tagg said.