BOSTON — About an hour after Mitt Romney delivered his brief, graceful concession speech at the Boston Convention Center, a group of his top aides — Beth Myers, Eric Fehrnstrom, Stuart Stevens, Russ Schriefer, and several others — retired to the bar of the nearby Westin Hotel. Nobody was crying, nobody was cursing, nobody was drowning his or her sorrows. It was just a quiet, impromptu gathering of people who had worked for a long time, some of them for many years, to elect Mitt Romney president.
An hour after a concession speech is no time to discuss the big, underlying reasons for a political defeat. And so at the Westin there was talk about proximate causes, especially Hurricane Sandy and how it had stopped Romney’s momentum and helped Barack Obama polish his presidential image at a critical time in the campaign. Before Sandy, Romney’s aides had watched him move up, point by point, in the national tracking polls. After Sandy, Romney slipped, Obama rose, and the race became a virtual tie.
“It was close,” they said. “We were close.” And they were close, in the popular vote at least, which wasn’t much of a consolation given that Obama racked up at least 303 electoral votes. But they had all worked incredibly hard on the campaign — when Romney said he and running mate Paul Ryan had left everything on the field, he could have been talking about the people in the bar, too — and still, it just hadn’t worked out.
A few hours earlier, across the street at the Convention Center, the campaign’s supporters and volunteers fully expected Romney to be the nation’s next president. Indeed, what was striking after Fox News called the race for Obama, at about 11:15 p.m., was how stunned so many of Romney’s supporters were. Many said they were influenced by the prominent conservatives who predicted a big Romney win, and they fully expected Tuesday night to be a victory celebration.
“I am shocked, I am blown away,” said Joe Sweeney, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I thought I had a pretty good pulse on this stuff. I thought there was a trend that was going on underground.”
“We were so convinced that the people of this country had more common sense than that,” said Nan Strauch, of Hilton Head, South Carolina. “It was just a very big surprise. We felt so confident.”
“It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are,” said Marianne Doherty of Boston. “I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do.”
Some Romney aides were surprised too, especially since they had put an enormous amount of effort into tracking the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate. In recent weeks the campaign came up with a super-secret, super-duper vote monitoring system that was dubbed Project Orca. The name “Orca,” after the whale, was apparently chosen to suggest that the project was bigger than anything any other campaign, including Barack Obama’s in 2008, had ever imagined. For the project, Romney aides gathered about 34,000 volunteers spread across the swing states to send in information about what was happening at the polls. “The project operates via a web-based app volunteers use to relay the most up-to-date poll information to a ‘national dashboard’ at the Boston headquarters,” said a campaign email on election eve. “From there, data will be interpreted and utilized to plan voter turnout tactics on Election Day.”
Orca, which was headquartered in a giant war room spread across the floor of the Boston Garden, turned out to be problematic at best. Early in the evening, one aide said that, as of 4 p.m., Orca still projected a Romney victory of somewhere between 290 and 300 electoral votes. Obviously that didn’t happen. Later, another aide said Orca had pretty much crashed in the heat of the action. “Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” said the aide.
With the shock and disappointment still so fresh, neither Romney aides nor supporters wanted to delve too deeply into the reasons for their candidate’s defeat. But GOP message expert Frank Luntz was on the scene and found himself going back to those months in the spring and summer when Obama inundated Romney with negative ads about Romney’s wealth, or Bain Capital, and Romney didn’t really fight back.
“Barack Obama was able to define Mitt Romney before Mitt Romney defined Mitt Romney,” Luntz explained. “The people in places like Ohio had decided that Mitt Romney was not a decent guy before they realized that he actually was a decent guy. [The campaign] didn’t respond. These ads crushed them, and they were on week after week with no response from the Romney campaign.”
There’s no doubt the Obama ads had a devastating effect. But in the Convention Center there was at least the beginning of speculation about other causes, as well. There was Romney’s failure to appeal to Latino voters, his single-mindedness in making the campaign about the economy, and his failure to move to the center quickly enough. And then there was the possibility that the race was simply a clear choice between governing philosophies, and voters liked Obama’s better.
In any event, the evening never felt like a victory, and the crowd never showed much life. The big TV screens on either side of the podium went back and forth, mostly between Fox and CNN, but since there wasn’t much that Republicans really wanted to hear, no one seemed to pay attention. When CNN announced that the GOP would keep control of the House of Representatives, there was no reaction. When CNN said Republican Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin had gone down to defeat — silence again. It was even quiet when Fox projected that Obama had won Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
There was a brief flurry of excitement when Karl Rove, on Fox, objected to his network’s call of Ohio for Obama. But it turned out the Fox numbers crunchers were right, and the room went right back to being quiet.
After a very long wait, Romney aides came out to tell the television crews that Romney would appear at 12:55 a.m. When the time came, Romney walked onstage by himself, with no family or running mate or supporters, and no Brooks & Dunn or Kid Rock blasting.
“I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory,” Romney began. “His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters.”
After thanks to his own side, from wife to campaign manager, Romney declared that “I ran for office because I’m concerned about America. This election is over, but our principles endure. I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to a new greatness.”
When Romney finished, he was joined by wife Ann, and then by Paul and Janna Ryan. Then came Romney’s sons and their wives. But there was never any music, never any fanfare, never any show. As they hastily planned the speech — Romney began the evening with just a victory speech in hand — Team Romney decided that less would be more. Or maybe they just didn’t have the spirit for anything bigger.
In the end, the night’s events just didn’t make much sense to Romney’s most faithful supporters. “What just happened?” asked Jim Stiller, of Orlando, Florida. “I’m shocked. I really expected it to be a closer race. I just don’t understand what message people saw in the Obama campaign.”
“I volunteered in Pennsylvania, because we were going to win Pennsylvania and come up with 330 electoral votes,” said Mike Stopa, a Harvard physicist (and keeper of the sometimes lonely website HarvardConservatives.com). “I had friends saying, ‘I bet you that your optimism is poorly placed,’ and they were right.”
But it wasn’t just the electoral count, or the pundits’ predictions, that left people baffled. Some of them knew and admired Romney and simply had a hard time accepting that such an extraordinary man had come up short. “I’ve been with him the whole ride, from 1983 until now,” said Bob Maginn, a former colleague of Romney’s at Bain Capital who also bought Romney’s old home in Belmont and now heads the Massachusetts Republican party. “I’ve been pulling for Mitt for a long time. I have to tell you, in ’83, I thought he was going to be president. He was such an amazing guy.”