BOSTON — Mitt Romney staked his campaign on the economy, and the economy let him down.
For years, Romney promoted himself as a turnaround artist, a corporate expert with extensive executive experience who knew how to make systems work. He would point to his stewardship rescuing the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and his record at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded, in helping companies succeed.
The Republican nominee tried hard to convince voters the economy should be doing better, that President Barack Obama lacked the knowhow to manage and improve it.
Obama looked vulnerable. Just one year ago, his approval rating had sunk to 41 percent, driven down by a sluggish economic recovery and a disillusioned, divided public.
But the numbers just were not bad enough to warrant replacing the president. The unemployment rate in October was 7.9 percent – a tick above the 7.8 percent the month Obama took office, but well below the 10 percent peak of October 2009. The economy grew at a 2 percent clip in the third quarter – not robust, but hardly a recession.
And consumer confidence, a key measure of voter sentiment, was up last month.
“He felt the economy was going to be enough. It really wasn’t,” Colorado-based political analyst Floyd Ciruli said of Romney.
The economy’s slow-but-steady improvement robbed Romney of his best argument for why people should vote against Obama, but he also failed to make a clear case for why people should choose him instead.
Romney was dogged throughout the campaign by charges he was too quick to change his views, too inauthentic. Conservatives distrusted him because of his moderate ways while governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 – and Wednesday, some took fresh aim.
“Out of last night’s disaster comes some good news – conservatives are saying ’Never again’ are we going to nominate a big government establishment Republican for president,” said veteran conservative strategist Richard Vigurie.
Moderates were wary because Romney seemed to shift sharply right during his presidential run.
As a result, "he was everybody’s second choice in the (Republican) primaries," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
On issue after issue, Romney’s views seemed to change to fit his political needs.
In January, when seeking the Republican nomination – and aiming to woo conservatives – he urged "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants. Six months later, the nomination now secure, Romney took no position on Obama’s new directive allowing many younger immigrants to stay in this country.
Two days before the first debate Oct. 3, Romney had another view. He told the Denver Post he would not overturn visas granted under Obama’s policy.
Romney’s demeanor didn’t help. “Romney just never really connected directly to people and touched them in a way that they thought he understood their concerns and their values,” said Republican political consultant David Carney.
Romney seemed stuck in the polls around 48 percent. So was Obama, but the president was a known quantity, and Romney was not. The more swing voters came to know him, the more they seemed unable to warm to him.
As a result, Romney could not make inroads into Obama’s coalition of Latino, African-American, women and younger voters. Romney won the white vote Tuesday by 20 percentage points, according to exit polls, but the electorate is changing and Romney couldn’t convince Obama’s most ardent blocs that they should send a stronger economic message.
Romney’s quest for acceptance seemed to never recover from the September release of a video recorded at a fundraising event that put Romney’s campaign on the defensive. In the video, Romney said that 47 percent of Americans would vote for Obama “no matter what." He characterized the president’s supporters as irresponsible “victims” who pay no income tax and are “dependent upon government.”
The video, published online by Mother Jones, reinforced the Obama campaign’s attack that Romney was an out-of-touch rich snob, a label he never quite managed to shake.
“He defined Romney before Romney did,” said Ciruli, the pollster.
Romney contended that his business success made him uniquely qualified to lead the country out of recession, but his huge personal fortune – worth up to $250 million – proved an impediment from the start.
Romney repeatedly stumbled into awkward gaffes such as offering a $10,000 bet during a primary debate, referring to wife Ann’s “two Cadillacs,” and boasting of his friendship with “NASCAR team owners.”
The off-the-cuff remarks made Romney vulnerable to accusations that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans struggling in the aftermath of the economic crisis.
Democrats fueled that perception by hammering him for months over his refusal to release more than two years of his tax returns. In late September, when his campaign finally did release a notarized 10-year summary from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the family’s tax preparer, the document showed that Romney paid an average effective tax rate of 13.66 percent annually – lower than many middle-class families.
Romney did his best to redefine himself as more moderate in the widely praised Oct. 3 debate performance, but by Election Day the debate momentum that had carried him for weeks had dissipated.
In the final week of the race, Hurricane Sandy’s disastrous strike on the East Coast further eroded what was left of Romney’s debate bounce.
The storm forced the campaigns to cancel rallies, lightened the aggressive tone of speeches and shifted focus away from the economy. Most importantly, it gave Obama the chance to act presidential.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a high-profile Romney backer, effusively praised Obama for his response to the storm, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, endorsed the incumbent president, saying that Sandy had brought the stakes of the race “into stark relief.” Bloomberg cited the problem of global warming, which he blamed for the severity of the storm, as a primary reason for his decision.
With Sandy’s devastation dominating headlines, Romney’s suggestion during the primaries that he would reduce federal funding for disaster relief came back to haunt him. In a June 2011 debate, Romney implied that states or the private sector could take on the role of the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In the aftermath of the storm, his campaign released a statement stressing that a Romney administration would provide help from FEMA, to be managed by states – another position tweak – but the damage was done.
His last-ditch effort to convince voters that Obama’s effort to revive the economic recovery had been a failure backfired when his campaign aired a TV spot that suggested General Motors and Chrysler planned to ship jobs overseas to China. The companies’ executives ridiculed the claim and fact checkers quickly debunked it.
Romney’s opposition to the federal government’s $80 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler haunted him into the final days of the campaign, particularly in key Midwestern manufacturing states Michigan and Ohio.
In a 2008 New York Times op-ed, titled “Let the Auto Industry Go Bankrupt,” Romney had called for a “managed bankruptcy” for Ford, GM and Chrysler, without the federal loans or assistance that the Obama administration provided. He later repeated the headline on television.
The president never let him forget it. Neither did the voters.
Late Tuesday night, even after several networks had called the presidency for Obama, some aides in Boston told reporters it was too early to give up until all votes had been counted.
But by midnight Romney could no longer deny the defeat. Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the former Massachusetts governor took the stage and wished the president and his family the best.
“I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation,” he said.
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lightmandavid, @lindsaywise