"There are so many things you could point to as being decisive," Mitt Romney said. "For instance, I had a lousy September; I had a great October."
Romney sat in an arm chair at his home in Belmont, Mass., dressed in blue jeans and a checked shirt. It was late January 2013, almost three months after voters rejected his bid for the White House, and the next hour and a half marked the first time he had talked to a reporter about the campaign ...
His great October began in Denver, at his first debate with Obama. Not surprisingly, he remembered that night as the high point of the year. After months of Romney being pounded in ads, voters finally saw him stand face to face with Obama.
"People would get a chance to see that I was not the person that President Obama had been portraying me as being, and the things he was saying about me and my positions were wrong. I mean, his ads were not accurate. His ads were just pillorying me, saying things that were simply not true, and so I recognized this as a chance for people to see who I really am, and understand what I really believe." When I said he seemed to reappear in that debate as "moderate Mitt," he offered this interpretation of what happened: "People saw the entire me as opposed to an eight-second clip of me ... And if people watched me on the campaign trail and heard my stump speech, what I said in my stump speech was the same thing I said in that debate. I'm the same guy. But in the debate, they saw the whole thing."
Romney believed the debates produced a fundamental change in his relationship with the party's rank and file. "What had begun as people watching me with an interested eye had become instead more of a movement with energy and passion," he said. "The rallies we'd had with larger and larger numbers and people not just agreeing with me on issues, but passionate about the election and about our campaign — that was something that had become palpable."
As a result, he woke up on Election Day thinking he would win. "I can't say 90 percent confident or something like that, but I felt we were going to win ... The campaign had changed from being clinical to being emotional. And that was very promising."
His last hours on the trail, especially the arrival at the Pittsburgh airport on the afternoon of the election, where he was greeted by a spontaneous crowd of supporters, gave him added confidence. "We were looking at our own poll numbers and there were two things that we believed," he said. "We believed that some of the polls that showed me not winning were just simply wrong, because they showed there was going to be more turnout from African American voters, for instance, than had existed in 2008. We said no way, absolutely no way. That can't be, because this was the first time an African American president had run. Two thousand eight — that had to be the high point ... We saw independent voters in Ohio breaking for me by double digits. And as a number said, you can't lose Ohio if you win independent voters. You're winning Republicans solidly, you're winning independents, and enthusiasm is overwhelmingly on your side ... So those things said, okay, we have a real good chance of winning. Nothing's certain. Don't measure the drapes. But I had written an acceptance speech and spent some time on the acceptance speech. I had not written a concession speech." ...
When Romney had mentioned his "lousy September," it was an evident reference to what may have been the low point of his campaign: the "47 percent" video. He was in California and said at first he couldn't get a look at the video. His advisers were pushing him to respond as quickly as he could. "As I understood it, and as they described it to me, not having heard it, it was saying, 'Look, the Democrats have 47 percent, we've got 45 percent, my job is to get the people in the middle, and I've got to get the people in the middle,'" he said. "And I thought, 'Well, that's a reasonable thing.' ... It's not a topic I talk about in public, but there's nothing wrong with it. They've got a bloc of voters, we've got a bloc of voters, I've got to get the ones in the middle. And I thought that that would be how it would be perceived — as a candidate talking about the process of focusing on the people in the middle who can either vote Republican or Democrat. As it turned out, down the road, it became perceived as being something very different."
You mean that you were insensitive to a whole group of people? I asked. "Right," he responded. "And I think the president said he's writing off 47 percent of Americans and so forth. And that wasn't at all what was intended. That wasn't what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived." I interjected, "But when you said there are 47 percent who won't take personal responsibility — " Before I finished, he jumped in. "Actually, I didn't say that ... That's how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality."
Scanning his notes on an iPad, he began to read a long quotation, offering commentary as he read. At one point, he focused on the question posed at the Florida fundraiser. "Audience member: 'For the last three years, all of us have been told this, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you.' How are you going to do it in two months before the elections, to convince everyone you've got to take care of yourself?' And I'm saying that isn't my job. In two months, my job is to get the people in the middle. But this was perceived as, 'Oh, he's saying 47 percent of the people he doesn't care about or he's insensitive to or they don't care — they don't take responsibility for their life.' No, no. I'm saying 47 percent of the people don't pay taxes and therefore they don't warm to our tax message. But the people who are voting for the president, my job isn't to try and get them. My job is to get the people in the middle. And I go on and say that. Take a look. Look at the full quote. But I realized, look, perception is reality. The perception is I'm saying I don't care about 47 percent of the people or something of that nature, and that's simply wrong."
I asked whether he thought that video helped to crystallize another issue he faced: Was it possible for someone with his biography and background and wealth to win the election at a time when there were widespread feelings that struggling families were being left behind while the rich were doing just fine?
"Well, clearly that was a very damaging quote and hurt my campaign effort," he said. "I came back in October. I led in a number of polls. I think I could have won the presidency. We came remarkably close. Would I like to have been closer? Absolutely. But the number of votes that could have swung to our side could have made a difference. You have to congratulate the president on a very good turnout effort. We were not competitive on our turnout effort with his. So could I have won? Absolutely. And did I recognize that coming as a person who has a great deal of wealth that in that environment that would be an obstacle? Yeah, I recognized that. But I thought I could get over it."
From Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America by Dan Balz. Copyright 2013 by Dan Balz. Excerpted by permission of Viking.