Can Mitt Romney convince his party that he’s not a "loser for life"?
Those are his words. “I have looked at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party,” Romney said of himself in the Netflix documentary “Mitt,” during a scene filmed shortly before the 2012 election. “They become a loser for life,” he said, holding finger and thumb in the shape of an “L” on his forehead.
He went on to lose to President Barack Obama by 4,982,296 votes in that race. But on Tuesday, Romney called Sen. John McCain — the only other member in the fraternity of people who have lost to the president — to make the case for running again in 2016.
“Mitt has a legitimate reason for a rerun,” said McCain, who lost the presidential nomination fight in 2000 and the general election in 2008. “He’s very viable.”
McCain, who campaigned for Romney in 2012, is one of dozens of top operatives, donors, elected officials and key supporters in early primary states who’ve gotten calls from Romney in recent days. He'll get a chance to make his pitch to top Republicans from around the country this week at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in San Diego, where's he's slated to deliver a speech.
The former governor’s message, according to sources familiar with the calls, is straightforward: I’m serious, my wife is on board, and I’m going to fix it.
"I think it's very real," one Romney veteran who received a call told msnbc. "You take a look at Al Gore, he did things with his life in business after he lost. Romney's already done all that. He's raised his family, he's been successful in business, he's run a state. This is what he wants to do."
“Every time he runs, he learns,” said another close Romney supporter who’s spoken to the governor about the nascent 2016 bid.
How he’ll fix it, exactly, is not yet clear. But Romney is putting on his business consultant hat and taking suggestions, as the supporters on the other end of the line express their concerns about what went wrong and offer their own prescriptions. Now in California at Stanford University, former Romney campaign policy chief Lanhee Chen is working to put together a new and improved policy plan. Longtime confidante Beth Myers, who ran Romney’s vice presidential vetting process, is helping to organize the overall structure.
The campaign is still in its early stages. But interviews with a half dozen Romney campaign veterans offered a broad outline of Romney’s vision for the next go-round.
Romney has talked particularly about lifting people into the middle class, echoing some of the themes that former running mate Paul Ryan touched on in his anti-poverty initiative last year. (This may not be a coincidence: One source told msnbc they believed Romney was hoping Ryan would run for president. The more his former running mate inched out of the race, the more concerned Romney became with the state of the field.)
First up would be the primary campaign — no easy feat, especially for a candidate who at times lagged in polls behind Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Even after he had all but sewn up the nomination, top Republicans held private discussions about replacing him at a brokered convention.
But even if he does make it through to the general election, he’ll have to overcome the same dynamics that doomed him in 2012. Among them: Towering Democratic margins among minority voters and women.
“Demographically, if Romney doesn’t adjust his approach, he will have even bigger problems in 2016,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told msnbc.
Ready for Hillary
Romney supporters said the political environment will be better this time around — and the opposition will be more to their liking. Hillary Clinton, after all, isn’t an incumbent president, with all the built-in advantages of holding office. While Obama successfully painted Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, Clinton has struggled in talking about her personal wealth, complaining at one point that she and former President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” after leaving the White House.
"I think he’s been vindicated in many ways on some of the things he said about foreign policy."'
Meanwhile, supporters said, Clinton’s past as Obama’s secretary of state would give Romney the opportunity to run against the president’s foreign policy record. Many Romney supporters were frustrated when Obama mocked Romney as a Cold War dinosaur for bashing Russia in debates. Now, with Vladimir Putin grabbing land and power, they feel vindicated. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq is another example.
“I think he’s been vindicated in many ways on some of the things he said about foreign policy,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, told reporters Tuesday.
But it’s not clear any of that would be enough to overcome the structural disadvantages built in to the general electorate — especially considering how Romney struggled to appeal to middle class and minority voters in 2012. In its autopsy of the 2012 campaign, even the Republican Party itself rebuked Romney’s position on immigration, blaming his support for “self-deportation” for alienating Latino voters.
And Romney’s own campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, said after the campaign that he regretted running hard to the right on immigration to win the nomination.
Would the real Mitt Romney please stand up?
A critical question, supporters say, is whether a 2016 campaign could successfully show Americans the relatable, human candidate who appeared in the documentary “Mitt” — instead of the out-of-touch, ruthless businessman that the Obama campaign depicted.
At the 2012 convention, for example, a video showcasing his wife and five sons never made it into the television schedule. (Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top consultant, later said the major networks wouldn’t allow it.) The convention also included moving speechesfrom members of Romney’s church attesting to his volunteer work in the community, a part of Romney's life the campaign rarely highlighted and one that could potentially play a more prominent role the next time around.
An improved effort in 2016 would have to focus more on Romney’s personal background, previous supporters said.
Such a shift in strategic decision making might require a new campaign team. Supporters are also telling the former governor that a 2016 effort would have to include new strategic voices — particularly, multiple sources said, an expansion to include people beyond Stevens. It’s not clear whether Romney himself agrees with that view. Sources also expressed concerns about the campaign's media operation, which they complained was too adversarial and sometimes slow to respond to Democratic attacks.
Most of all, there’s also skepticism within the party that Romney would be able reinvent himself as a populist. During the 2012 campaign, he made gaffe after gaffe about his own vast personal wealth, saying that he was “not concerned about the very poor” because “we have a safety net there,” deriding the “47%,” and referring to more than $360,000 in speaking fees as “not very much money.” Romney supporters told msnbc that the new focus on poverty and lifting the middle class would help combat that perception. San Diego affiliate KNSD has confirmed that Romney will be speaking on the USS Midway on Friday during the RNC.
Even in the early stages, though, it’s clear Romney has some hurdles to clear with even his biggest supporters.
“I think we're going to have a very vigorous field here as you've seen,” Ayotte said at the press conference. She was a top Romney supporter in New Hampshire during the 2012 race and was considered for vice president.
Ryan, the previous vice presidential pick, wouldn’t commit to backing Romney in an interview with NBC News this week, despite previously saying he would “drive the bus” on a campaign if Romney asked him to.
And McCain, who’s backing Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, in a potential bid, acknowledged the appeal of running again.
“Of course I think about [running for president]. I dream about it. But I have learned my lesson,” McCain said.
He offered, instead, a cautionary tale. Former Sen. Mo Udall ran against Jimmy Carter for president, losing in state after state, before suffering a final loss after a recount.
McCain quoted Udall’s concession speech*: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”
*A reader flagged that McCain may be mixing up his losers: The quote is associated with Dick Tuck, who lost the 1966 race for a California Senate seat, not Udall.