The signs were already there on the glorious early summer’s day that Mitt Romney launched his first major campaign swing of the presidential election. Like everything in his campaign, the event on a New Hampshire farm in June had been meticulously organised, down to the bales of hay stacked high behind the stage and his arrival, and then departure, on a custom-fitted bus to take him on a six-state tour of America’s heartland called “Every Town Counts”.
Circling overhead, however, was a light plane dispatched by a leftwing activist group, trailing a sign with a different message – “Every Millionaire Counts”. Barely noticed on the day, the stunt was a forerunner of more than just the coming political assault on Romney’s financial fortune.
By any objective measure, the Republican challenger to Barack Obama should be packing his bags to move into the White House. No US president has won re-election with the kinds of negatives that Obama has accumulated – persistently high unemployment, an approval rating mostly under 50 per cent and a majority of the American people feeling the country is going in the wrong direction. In Obama’s only electoral test in 2010, in the midterm congressional polls, the Republicans wiped the floor.
“If Mr Obama wins, it will be because he has managed to overcome just about every historical marker there is for re-election,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
Romney’s dominating performance in the presidential debates may have successfully pushed the reset button on his campaign. But a month from the November 6 poll, to the horror of Republicans, Obama is on track to surmount those historical hurdles. Like the plane circling the New Hampshire farmhouse, Obama’s campaign has shadowed its opponent at every turn since June, pre-empting all efforts by Romney to create his own story for the electorate.
If a politician’s biography is their most precious commodity, then Romney has helped mightily in dismantling his own life story. Instead of the election being a referendum on Obama’s economy, the combination of Romney’s serial missteps and the brutally targeted Obama campaign have made the poll much more of a vote on the Republican candidate.
For his supporters, Romney has long been a natural leader – energetic, capable and gracious, and as effortlessly able to raise his family and play a leadership role in the Mormon church as he was making his fortune in business.
After just a few months working alongside Romney in the early 1980s, Philip Barlow, now Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, remembers phoning his mother to tell her his colleague “could be president of the United States”. Romney, then in his mid-thirties and immersed full-time in launching his career in finance, worked with Barlow as lay clergy at their church parish in Boston. Together they arranged rosters for the hymns at Sunday services, helped Mormons moving in and out of the area and counselled families with problems such as illness or drugs. More than his dedication, it was Romney’s sheer class that struck Barlow. “He could be in his swimsuit or an unbuttoned shirt but there was still a certain elegance and polish about him,” he says. “It’s not a performance.”
Romney, 65, was born into wealth and power. His father, George, was chief executive of American Motors (later acquired by Chrysler) and then the governor of Michigan. But Romney has also made his own way, as the co-founder of Bain Capital, a pioneering private equity firm, and later in public life, as the CEO who rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and as governor of Massachusetts for four years until 2007.
“This is a successful person,” says Senator Marco Rubio, the Republicans’ rising star from Florida. “He is successful as a husband and father, in politics and business and as a leader in his community.”
No one doubts Romney’s success in business. He has an estimated fortune of $250m, and tax returns as thick as a Russian novel to prove it. The returns showed Romney earning hefty amounts from his investments – $21.6m in 2010 and $13.7m last year – while paying the lower capital gains tax rate. They also detailed his investments in places such as the Cayman Islands. But such business skills don’t translate seamlessly into presidential politics. Since heading into the two parties’ conventions in late August and early September in a statistical dead heat with Obama in national polls, Romney has stumbled badly.
By early September, two of the six states that Romney had targeted on his June bus tour – Michigan and Pennsylvania – had dropped off the electoral map altogether, ceded to Obama. In the prize state of Ohio, he began falling off the pace, making any path to victory perilously difficult.
Two weeks later, a detailed fly-on-the-wall article of squabbling inside the Romney team appeared in the Washington publication Politico, with lengthy anonymous quotes from his own staff excoriating the candidate and his campaign. Such articles, as many commentators noted acidly, usually appear after a campaign is over, and various advisers begin to jostle to spread blame for the loss.
While his team was still trying to right the ship, a secretly recorded speech Romney delivered in May at a closed-door Florida fundraiser was posted on the internet. Romney was taped as writing off the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay federal income tax as people who believed they were “victims” and entitled to free food, housing and other goods from the government. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said, in words that still haunt him.
If the Obama campaign wanted to invent a caricature of an out-of-touch plutocrat, they could not have done a better job than their opponent did himself. Even worse for Romney, the speech was delivered at a $50,000-a-head fundraiser. In the background of the recording, you can hear the sound of expensive silver and wine glasses clinking. It wasn’t until Thursday evening this week that Romney properly disavowed his comments, saying they were “completely wrong”.
At a rally in Miami, a few days after the tape was leaked, Romney looked on as his son Craig introduced him in a not-quite-full auditorium. Speaking in English and fluent Spanish – learnt during Mormon missionary work in Chile – Craig recalled his anxiety when his father decided to run for president. “I know my dad. He’s a man of incredible integrity and incredible experience. But I was concerned that the voters wouldn’t get to know him like that,” the younger Romney said. An air of pathos hung in the air, even as the festive crowd cheered and a band played “Guantanamera”.
The precious bits of his biography that Romney could hang on to, such as his Mormon family’s antecedents in Mexico, have become not part of the rich tapestry of his life, but fodder for mordant jokes by the candidate himself. “My dad was born in Mexico, and had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this,” he said, a joke he made at the same closed-door fundraiser and repeated in an interview with Univision, America’s largest Hispanic television network, in September. Jokes aside, Romney trails Obama by a significant margin with Hispanic voters.
The US has had wealthy presidents in the past. Teddy Roosevelt railed against the “malefactors of great wealth” in the early years of the 20th century, earning him abuse as “a traitor to his class”. Likewise, Franklin D. Roosevelt, another president who came from money, thundered in office in the 1930s against “economic royalists”. Robert Reich, the labour secretary under President Bill Clinton who cites these examples, says Romney is different. “He is not a traitor to his class. He is a sponsor of his class,” says Reich, now at the University of California in Berkeley. “So much wealth and power have accumulated at the top of America that our economy and democracy are seriously threatened. Romney not only represents this problem, he is the living embodiment of it.”
Romney’s quest for the White House has echoes of other modern winning – and losing – campaigns. Like John Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected president, Romney is a trailblazer for the Mormon religion, long considered an outlier among religions in the US.
His ambition also has a whiff of the psychodrama of George W. Bush’s efforts to restore the family honour after his father was defeated after a single term in office. In 1968, Romney Sr was briefly favoured to become the Republican nominee for the presidential election. His campaign imploded when he complained on his return from Vietnam that he had been “brainwashed” by the generals. Richard Nixon went on to win the nomination, and the White House.
Like John Kerry, the losing Democratic candidate in 2004, Romney has developed a damaging reputation as a flip-flopper. In his first run for the Republican nomination in 2008, when he was bested by John McCain, his intraparty opponents prepared a dense 11-page dossier of “Top Romney Turnarounds”.
Four years later, the dossier is thicker. Many conservatives have long harboured suspicions that Romney was not “one of us”. With the rise of the Tea Party after Obama’s election in 2008, Romney was forced to swing further to the right, on issues such as women’s health, immigration and tax cuts, to win his party’s nomination. By the time he set out on the June bus tour, Romney was not introducing himself to voters as the moderate, problem-solving politician who was once the governor of Massachusetts, but as someone altogether new. In his own words, he was now a “severely conservative” candidate.
In the stereotypical playbook for presidential candidates, you cultivate the partisan base in the primaries and then pivot back to the centre for the election proper. But until Wednesday’s debate, Romney has been stuck, unable to move. “I think it’s tragic,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of a recent book on the modern Republican party. “I don’t think that is who he is, but he is increasingly tied to a set of propositions that do not command popular support.”
To become governor of Massachusetts, Romney ran as a pro-choice moderate. In office in Boston, he closed dirty, coal-fired power stations, promoted green energy and famously worked with Democrats to pass a healthcare bill that mirrored Obama’s legislation in 2009. Straddling all these positions, while disowning few of them, has been painful.
“It must have been hard for him to get a date in high school,” says Dick Harpootlian, South Carolina Democratic Party chairman. “He tells Mary – ‘I love you’; and then he tells Sally – ‘I love you’. He doesn’t seem to realise that these days, Mary and Sally are talking to each other.”
Mitt Romney has a steady, unchanging persona on the campaign trail, no highs, no lows, whether he is in a fairground in Florida, a dilapidated music hall in Ohio or on a family farm in Iowa. Erect, handsome and uncommonly fit and youthful for a 65-year-old man, he looks like the CEO that he was, dressed immaculately in casual clothes for a day outside the office.
His personal life is similarly stable. He has been married to Ann, his high-school girlfriend, for more than four decades. Their five sons, ranging in age from 42 to 31, all preternaturally good-looking, have stayed with the church and close to their parents. All are out on the hustings, dedicated to campaigning for their father.
The same steadiness is evident in Romney’s medical records, released along with his tax returns in September. His doctor of more than 20 years described him as a “vigorous man”, with reserves of energy and strength secured through his abstinence from alcohol and smoking, a rigorous high-fibre diet and avoidance of fatty foods.
Once he takes the stage in New Hampshire, he shuffles jerkily from side to side, marionette-like, as he makes his points, like someone speaking on a one-second time delay. Microphone in hand, Romney talks incessantly of America and its ascendancy as the greatest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world. “This is a great land!” he tells the crowd, a theme he returns to repeatedly, in between barbs at Obama and his economic prescriptions. At stop after stop, his message is the same: “I love this country! I love America! I love the constitution.”
Anyone running for high office in the US invariably radiates a sunny patriotism and an infallible belief in the country’s ability for renewal. To do otherwise is political death. But there is a good reason that Romney seems to embody American exceptionalism. He not only believes that the American colossus rules the world, but the heavens as well. Although he almost never speaks about it in public, in interviews or in his stump speeches, it is impossible to understand Romney without delving into his religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism.
Mormonism is America’s homegrown religion, one that began, according to the founding myth, with an angel visiting an illiterate farmhand, Joseph Smith, in the early 19th century in New York state. It has grown quickly in the US – just under 2 per cent of the population now identify themselves as Mormons (almost as many describe themselves as Jewish), and it is expanding rapidly abroad. The church is rich, too. Mormons are required to send 10 per pent or more of their gross earnings to the church’s central treasury in Salt Lake City.
But even if leaders like Romney are bringing the religion from the periphery to the centre of US life, it has not arrived yet. The pitched battle the early Mormon settlers fought with the authorities; their one-time practice of polygamy, which lingers in some smaller isolated communities; the tradition of sending young believers on missions at home and abroad to proselytise to recruit new members; and the habit of secrecy, with a ruling council of elders changing longstanding policies overnight on the basis of “revelations” – all have moulded the religion’s image and its weirdness factor.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the council announced out of the blue that it would lift a ban on African-American priests in the church. Romney Sr was ahead of his church and had campaigned for years for an end to such discrimination. Mitt Romney heard the news while driving, and pulled over when he started to weep. He called it one of the “most emotional and happy days” of his life.
There is at least one good reason why Romney doesn’t want to talk too much about his religion: polygamy is part of his own family history. Romney’s great-grandfather, with his three wives and their children, fled to Mexico in the late 19th century when the federal government began cracking down on the practice. It would be three decades before the Romney family, in the person of his grandfather, returned to the US.
His grandfather and father were both raised in the modern Mormon church, which rejected plural wives, as was Mitt, who went straight from studying at Stanford University to scouring France for converts as a missionary. He joked later that this taught him how to handle rejection. “As you can imagine, it’s quite an experience to go to Bordeaux and say, ‘Give up your wine! I’ve got a great religion for you!’”
In private, Romney wisecracks constantly, or so his family, friends and work colleagues say. “I’m the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame,” he joked last year in an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. In public, however, there is a formality about him, a sense that he is holding something back. Only his family, and close friends in the church, see the real Romney.
His friends think he has made a conscious decision not to talk about his religion. “I think his approach is that he wants to make it very clear that while his faith is very important to him, he’s not, as he said, a pastor-in-chief; he’s a commander-in-chief, and he just wants to focus on that,” says Fraser Bullock, a colleague from Bain, and a fellow Mormon who worked with Romney on the Salt Lake City Games.
Many people who know him, or who worked with him in Massachusetts, yearn for the real Romney to reappear. Douglas Foy was one of many outsiders appointed by Romney to executive positions in Massachusetts. A lawyer who had established and run an environmental advocacy group for a quarter of a century, Foy’s appointment to head a superagency overseeing transport, energy and the environment irritated sections of the business community. Foy remembers Romney as practical and straight and not as the stiff buttoned-up figure that many see today. “I never understood why they had him walled off,” he says. “I blame it on his handlers. He was very personable in private.”
When Foy’s agency knocked back a request from a large campaign donor for funds for a state project, he says Romney did not object. “There was no patronage – not a single person was sent up to the agency to get a job,” he says. “If there was an ideology, it was just ‘show me a good investment’. He liked to invest.”
In his celebrated clashes with local power brokers, such as William Bulger, Romney has also displayed a similar mettle. Bulger is the brother of “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious organised crime figure (and FBI informant) accused of 19 murders, who went missing in 1994 after being tipped off about his arrest [Bulger was finally arrested and jailed in 2011]. He was also the inspiration for the Jack Nicholson character in the film The Departed, about a mafia rat who was also running his own police informer. Romney was furious that William, who was president of the University of Massachusetts, hadn’t willingly co-operated in tracking down his fugitive sibling. Against the weight of advice, Romney forced him from office.
“Bulger was a very powerful, behind-the-scenes Massachusetts politician, and people were telling him don’t do it, you can’t take him on, and Mitt said no, it’s the right thing to do,” says Mike Murphy, a political consultant who advised the governor. “I thought to myself watching this, God, this guy is [The Untouchables agent] Eliot Ness.”
If Romney does lose the election, the turning point might be his departure on his six-state bus tour from the New Hampshire farmhouse. While Romney was holding small rallies, generating positive local news coverage, the Obama machine cranked up a campaign of negative attacks costing tens of millions of dollars.
Obama’s air war was devastating. The portrait of Romney as a latter-day robber baron raiding companies and laying off workers at Bain Capital angered many business leaders. But it hit home with its target audience, the middle classes of middle America, in states such as Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. For many political professionals, Romney’s fatal mistake was not to have advertisements up at the same time, telling his own life story on his own terms. “I regard [the campaign’s] performance at this time as political malpractice,” says a prominent Democratic adviser in Congress.
Charlie Cook, the veteran political commentator in Washington, concurs with criticism of the Romney campaign. “It is becoming clear that if President Obama is re-elected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign,” he says. “If Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign.”
Barlow, his former colleague from the church in Boston, remembers Romney telling him once: “The Romneys are born to swim upstream.” For someone born into a powerful family with an additional fortune he has made himself, such a statement might seem preposterous. The debate on Wednesday might have turned his fortunes around, but with the election barely a month away and Romney trailing in the polls, the description sounds just right.
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
This article is subject to a clarification and has been amended.