When a behind-the-scenes Netflix documentary about Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign received a warm response in 2013, it gave a boost to family members who had lost an argument with campaign strategists over the value of showing the candidate’s personal side.
“The positive reaction to the documentary and the number of people that mentioned it to Mitt and commented about it favorably — it gave him a lot to think about,” former Minnesota governor and 2012 candidate Tim Pawlenty tells NRO. “It caused him to realize that there is an effective way to show the soft side and the true heart of Mitt that wasn’t done during the last campaign as effectively as it could have been.”
Romney’s debut on the 2016 presidential stage suggests that he’s taken that lesson to heart. In an appearance last week, the former GOP nominee urged the Republican National Committee to adopt an anti-poverty message that differs from his 2012 focus on small-business owners and entrepreneurs. He also alluded to his family and his activities as a Mormon church leader — a verboten subject during the last election.
Yet some of Romney’s former advisers — even those who regard his elitist image as an unfair Democratic caricature — aren’t sure he should try to rehabilitate his image with a third campaign. Romney ’08 aides seem to lean more strongly against a third bid, but even the 2012 team is hardly united behind the idea.
“I have a bad reaction to it,” says Jan van Lohuizen, a pollster from Romney’s 2008 bid. “After all his denials last year that he was going to run, to all of a sudden turn on a dime and decide to run after all just because Jeb Bush was doing the same thing, I thought it was just weird, and it made it look all about his ambition.”
An aide from the 2012 campaign suggests that’s not fair, saying that Romney will run only if he believes he’s the best for the job. “The risks of this ending badly are far outweighed by the regret he’d feel of sitting it out,” the aide says, speaking on condition of anonymity. When asked why Romney thinks a third campaign won’t end as badly as the last one, the aide replies, “I don’t know.”
That’s myopic political analysis, according to a third Romney alumnus, who seems more supportive of a 2016 campaign.
“At face value, he’s better positioned now than in 2011,” says the third adviser. “He was losing to people then who weren’t even in the race [for the nomination].” To critics who suggest that Romney’s polling numbers are inflated by high name recognition, the adviser counters that some of the Republicans who trail him in these polls, such as Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz, have “saturation” name ID among Republican primary voters.
Best of all, President Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016. Hillary Clinton, who has struggled on the campaign trail and during a recent book tour, looks like a much weaker candidate. “She’s not an incumbent president, so, if you take out Hillary and put in anybody . . . You could put in Elizabeth Warren, you could put in anybody — Bill Clinton” the former adviser says. “Pick your favorite. That person will be easier. Incumbent presidents are the hardest to beat.”
Romney has found plenty of opportunity since the presidential election to road test his kinder, gentler campaign personality. He spoke at length about his Mormon beliefs during a 2013 commencement address. In 2014, he loosened up on the campaign trail. “When you’re running for office, people tell you that you shouldn’t tell jokes; well, I’m not running for office, so I can tell them,” he said in Iowa, before making a crack at Obama’s expense.
Unfortunately for Romney, Republicans and Democrats alike spent about $2 billion on ads in 2012 portraying him in a very different light. That includes the former governor’s own campaign, which emphasized his support for entrepreneurs even as the Obama team made him famous for saying that his job was “not to worry about” the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax.
And even if he could have blunted that attack with a more personal campaign strategy at the time, it might be too late for such a move now, a skeptical former aide says.
Van Lohuizen puts it this way: “The problem is: We’ve now had a liberal Mitt Romney who was pro-choice; and then we had ultra-conservative Mitt Romney, who was more conservative than anybody else — that was in ’08; and then we had Mr. Fix-It Mitt Romney, who is going to fix the economy; and now we’re going to get Mr. World Politics/Strong America Mitt Romney, just because the circumstances on the ground have changed since he ran in 2012. How many times can you redefine somebody?”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.