'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He? : It's All Politics One of the biggest challenges Mitt Romney faced in his presidential campaign was the question of likability. Almost everyone who knows him likes him, but that likable guy was hard to find on the campaign trail — until the very end.
NPR logo

'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/164732654/164767070" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He?

'Let Mitt Be Mitt': But Who Was He?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/164732654/164767070" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


People who follow Mitt Romney's presidential campaign are doing postmortems on a different kind of disaster. There are many explanations for what went wrong for Romney; some validity to each explanation. The staff, it is said, was not the best. The Republican Party has a demographic problem. Those growing minority populations favor Democrats.


This morning, we're going to look deeply at one, big challenge Mitt Romney faced. Americans want to like their president; and almost everyone who knows Mitt Romney personally, does like him. But that likeable guy was hard to find on the campaign trail. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been traveling with Romney from the beginning, and he has this final retrospective.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In the earliest days of this campaign, Mitt Romney visited the self-proclaimed ice cream capital of the world: Le Mars, Iowa. He talked about his plans for the United States, and why he thought he should be the Republican presidential nominee. But when it came time to talk about himself, Mitt Romney outsourced the job.


MITT ROMNEY: Come on up here, Craig; come, and say hi. Tell them something about your family, or about your dad, that they don't know. My son Craig...


SHAPIRO: Craig Romney told an odd story, about a family triathlon. His father's opponent was a daughter-in-law who had just given birth to her second child.


CRAIG ROMNEY: And it was - kind of in the home stretch, in the run there, and she had a slight lead on him. And he said that in that moment, he decided he was going to win that race, or he was going to die trying.


SHAPIRO: The crowd laughed nervously. This story was designed to show Romney as a guy who fights to the very end. Instead, he sounded kind of heartless.

Mitt Romney never liked talking about himself. He thought it was unseemly. Also, talking about himself meant talking about his Mormon religion, and the campaign wasn't sure how voters would feel about that. So he talked about other things - like the economy, and President Obama. That created an opening that his rivals quickly filled.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: A story of greed - playing the system for a quick buck; a group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney.

SHAPIRO: That video was not produced by the Obama campaign. It was from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's team. Texas Gov. Rick Perry coined a phrase that immediately sank its talons into the narrative.


GOV. RICK PERRY: There is a real difference between a venture capitalist and a vulture capitalist.

SHAPIRO: And Romney? Well, his campaign didn't go the standard route of producing biographical videos introducing the candidate to voters. They produced plenty of ads, but almost all of them were attacks on the other guys.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Newt Gingrich supports amnesty for millions of illegals. Rick Perry not only supports amnesty, but gave illegals in-state tuition. Gingrich...

SHAPIRO: Attack ads may hurt their target, but they also hurt the person creating the message. A portrait emerged of Romney as a cold-hearted, severely conservative robber baron. And that was before the Obama campaign even lifted a finger.

In person, Romney could be warm and funny. One-on-one, he interacted with people naturally. But when the cameras turned on, that side of him disappeared. Aides complained that he became some kind of bizarre, awkward automaton. One staffer joked with reporters, that he should tell Mitt Romney a session was off the record; but tell the press it was on the record because if Romney knew he was being recorded, his genuine side would skitter away like a rabbit. When Romney did speak off the cuff, with cameras rolling, he often said things that came across as pandering, or out of touch. In Mississippi, he opened a speech with this...


M. ROMNEY: I'm learning to say y'all, and ...


M. ROMNEY: ...and I like grits. And things - strange things are happening to me.

SHAPIRO: In Michigan, where he grew up, Romney should have been a natural. Instead, he said things that made him sound like a visitor from another planet...


M. ROMNEY: You know, the trees are the right height...


ROMNEY: ...the streets are just right.

SHAPIRO: This created a feedback loop in the Romney campaign. His staffers realized that when they let him talk, he screwed up. So they cut way back on the spontaneous interactions. He rarely dropped by restaurants unannounced, as other candidates do. He almost never talked to the press. This created fewer embarrassing remarks, sure. But there were also fewer opportunities for genuine, illuminating moments. By the time the primaries ended, Romney's favorability ratings were in the gutter - 29 percent, according to pollster Andy Kohut, of Pew.

ANDY KOHUT: Twenty-nine percent favorable is a pretty rough number, for a person running for president of the United States.

SHAPIRO: It wasn't until August that the campaign finally realized they had to change course. They created a moving, glossy, 10-minute video showing Romney with his kids, and his wife.


ANN ROMNEY: When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, both of us just dissolved in tears.

M. ROMNEY: Probably the toughest time in my life, was standing there with Ann as we hugged each other, and the diagnosis came.

SHAPIRO: It was positioned to reach a huge audience. The plan was to show it on the climactic night of the Republican National Convention, in Tampa. It was set to open the hour of the convention that peaked with Romney's acceptance speech. But at the last minute, the campaign bumped the video to the previous hour, when none of the TV networks were tuned in. And in the slot where the video was originally scheduled to play? Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair, imagining President Obama sitting there.


CLINT EASTWOOD: What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. He can't do that to himself.


SHAPIRO: This sad story did have a turnaround - after the first presidential debate. Romney won, hands down, and the campaign decided - in their words - to let Mitt be Mitt. Within days, he was telling personal stories on the trail; like this, one about a 14-year-old with leukemia, who he met through his church.


M. ROMNEY: It was clear, he was not going to make it. And I went into his room one night, when he was in bed, and he asked me a very difficult question. He said, Mitt, what's next? He called me Brother Romney - what's next? And I talked to him about what I believe is next.

SHAPIRO: That's what Americans wanted to hear, too. The Mitt Romney who sat down next to that teenager with leukemia; had not sat down with the American voter, until then. It was just one month before the election, but it clicked. Tens of thousands of people showed up at rallies, chanting his name.


UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt...

M. ROMNEY: Thank you.


M. ROMNEY: Thank you. Thank you.


SHAPIRO: On Election Day, Romney dropped by a campaign office near Cleveland.


M. ROMNEY: Hi...thank you...

SHAPIRO: Eighty-one-year-old Phyllis Froimsen giggled like a teenager, at the chance to meet him.

PHYLLIS FROIMSEN: I think he's very handsome. (LAUGHTER) He really is. He's a good-looking guy.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you just met him. How does it feel?

FROIMSEN: I feel like a million bucks. (LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: By the time people went to the polls this week, something remarkable had happened. Romney's favorability numbers had climbed to a tie with President Obama's. But it wasn't enough. Likeable people can still lose. Months ago, in one of his more candid moments with reporters, Mitt Romney talked about the lessons he'd learned from his father. George Romney also ran for president, unsuccessfully, more than 40 years ago. Mitt Romney said his father never dwelled on defeat; didn't obsess, or rehash what had gone wrong. His father let go, and moved on. Mitt Romney was asked whether he shares that trait, and replied with one word: No.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Boston.


Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.