Shortly after Election Day in 2012, a Mitt Romney supporter moaned to POLITICO about the failed GOP nominee’s performance: “We had no message, and we gave it to the worst communicator in the world.”
Two years later, Romney is mulling over another campaign for the White House, and this time, he says, things will be different.
In meetings with and individual calls to donors, supporters and former staffers, Romney is making it clear that he is likely to run, putting his time frame for a decision at “weeks, not months.”
Romney, who made a fortune in the financial sector and was cast by Democrats in 2012 as a heartless businessman, wants to make tackling poverty — a key issue for his 2012 vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan — one of the three pillars of his campaign. The former Massachusetts governor also says he’ll have a different communications staff and hopes to show voters a version of himself they didn’t get to see last time. (There’s even a Netflix documentary he can point to.)
Yet interviews with more than a dozen staffers and supporters who have recently spoken with Romney reveal conversations in which he promises a “different” path forward without providing specifics about what that means as far as mechanics and his own sometimes gaffe-ridden performance. And, aside from most of his communications team, Romney would still be expected to bring back the majority of his old staff, sources said.
“He really has to show people that he’d do it differently, rather than just say he’d do it differently,” said a former top adviser to Romney, one of half a dozen alumni to speak Monday with POLITICO. “He needs to assure folks he’d take a much more direct approach to laying out the vision for his campaign versus having those decisions driven by a bunch of warring consultants.”
Romney announced Friday that he is considering running in 2016, in what would be his third attempt at the presidency. The first time, in 2008, he ran as a conservative. His decision came after Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, said he was actively exploring a White House run. On Monday, Ryan announced that he will not run for president, possibly an indicator that he believes Romney is serious.
“A lot of people don’t think Jeb has the fire in the belly,” said one uncommitted Republican donor, who expressed “shock” that Romney is considering another race.
Romney didn’t leave much in the ashes of 2012 that was worth replicating. He was a skilled debater, but his campaign was criticized for its threadbare messaging, staff insularity, a lack of data savvy and a fatalistic approach to the press. Yet even that failed effort was meticulously prepared for by Romney, with years of tending to donors’ neuroses and staffers’ concerns.
And amid growing speculation that Romney would jump in the 2016 fray, doubts have persisted about his ability to improve his own performance. His own party’s chairman, Reince Priebus, responded to calls for Romney to run again at a recent donor luncheon in Manhattan by pointing out the candidate’s many self-inflicted wounds.
Romney and his top aides have often attributed the loss to events out of their control. Within two weeks of the loss, Romney bluntly told a large number of donors on a conference call that Obama unfairly put his thumb on the scale with policy “gifts” to key constituencies, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”
“In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” he said at the time.
Romney allies have also insisted to the former Massachusetts governor, and he has echoed in conversations he’s had, that the main reason he lost in 2012 was that he was running against an incumbent president, and that he would have an easier path in 2016. In 2012, Romney veered well to the right to win over primary voters, moves many believe cost him in the general — but he has scoffed in private conversations at Bush’s insistence that he won’t do the same in order to win the nomination.
Regardless, “I think he’d be the first person to tell you, absolutely,” he needs to run a better race, said Robert O’Brien, a California-based Republican donor who was recently courted by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz but who decided to wait to see where Romney stands. O’Brien, who said he’d received a call from Romney in recent days, added: “If he decides to run, I think you’ll see a different campaign and I think you’ll see a campaign in which the American people get to really know Mitt Romney as a person.”
Bush and Romney already are calling many of the same donors and operatives, in some cases within hours of each other, to make their pitch, round up support and lay claim to staff. Romney has also called at least two key officials in the early primary state of New Hampshire, former Sen. Judd Gregg and his successor, current Sen. Kelly Ayotte, sources said. Romney and Bush are among prominent figures invited to the Republican National Committee meeting in San Diego this week, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed to POLITICO. Bush is not planning to attend the meeting, an aide to the former Florida governor said.
Romney, who just a year ago categorically ruled out a third White House run, is to some extent playing catch-up. Some of his former supporters are lining up behind Bush for 2016, and some staffers are reluctant to join him again. Romney has been burning up the phones to top members of his old finance team, and he hopes to bring back a majority of his old staff, sources said.
“There’ll be a lot of old faces and some new faces,” said one source who’s spoken with him.
Romney has been in frequent touch with his longtime adviser Stuart Stevens, although it isn’t clear whether he would be brought back in the chief strategist role he held last time. But Russ Schriefer, Stevens’ partner and ad-maker, is aligned with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. People like former RNC official Ray Washburne have committed to playing key roles in a Christie campaign. And a number of donors say some Romney alumni would sooner back Christie than Bush, who’s had past friction with Romney.
Polls show Romney as the leader on the GOP side and faring better in a general election than Bush. But the reality is likely to be harsher than the numbers suggest. For one thing, the emerging GOP field is large and includes several potentially strong contenders from gubernatorial and senatorial ranks.
“It would be difficult, hand-to-hand trench warfare,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based strategist who was Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s top adviser in 2012. “The class of competitors this time around are a class or two above the 2012 group of contenders. Misreading of polling data is a common affliction that unsuccessful, and too many successful politicians suffer. His first hurdle would be to explain how this campaign would be different then his last two failures.”
A senior Romney adviser in 2012 said the former Massachusetts governor would approach the primaries very differently “by virtue of experience,” determined not to utter the kind of self-destructive statements he did last time in order to outflank his challengers on the right. For instance, in 2012, he suggested pursuing policies that lead undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” — a remark that cost him badly among Hispanic voters in the general election.
Besides a focus on helping the poor, the other two pillars he’s told people he would build a new campaign around are supporting the middle class and a muscular foreign policy, an area where he believes he was strongly vindicated from his 2012 campaign against President Barack Obama. Romney, for instance, warned about the strategic threat posed by Russia, which many at the time thought was an overstatement. The multimillionaire also is cognizant of the damage done last time by his derisive remarks about “47 percent” of the population, whom he cast as moochers.
“If he does go forward, there will be heavier doses of foreign policy,” a senior adviser told POLITICO. “That was a strength of his last campaign. A lot of what he said has been borne out … All that feeds into a narrative.”
“The economic focus has to be different as well,” he added. “There will be more focus on mobility and softer economic issues. There will also probably be more on upward mobility and opportunity.”
Another senior official on the 2012 Romney effort said the campaign then struggled to scale up after it secured the GOP nomination. He believes a 2016 campaign would be organized from the start with a general election victory in mind.
“The value for the Obama campaign in ’12 was the muscle memory,” the adviser said. “They’d gone through the battles together and had trust. That doesn’t mean you have to have the exact same team. You need the structure, but you don’t need the exact same people. In ’12, the Obama people could tap into the talent they had in 2008. In many ways, we have that type of apparatus in place for Mitt.”
Advisers mulling over a 2016 Romney redux also hope the campaign will be smarter about spending. “Institutionally, they could raise the same amount as last time,” a senior Romney alum said. “But, by having a team that knows where the pitfalls are, we could be 30 percent more efficient.”
Another senior adviser who just spent time with Romney described him as genuinely relaxed and much looser than during the marathon of the 2012 campaign, but that he appears “very serious” about running again. The adviser said Romney is not as worried about money and support materializing as the coverage of the last few days suggests.
“His assumption is, if he decides to run, a lot of that stuff will come online,” the adviser said. “He has a desire to be pr