COLUMBUS, OHIO—It’s a sign of how much Mitt Romney’s campaign was transformed in the final weeks of his six-year journey for the presidency that I was confused by the sight of a huge traffic jam near his final Ohio rally Monday night. This, after all, is a candidate who, way back in the summer of 2007, started his run to accomplish what his father could not by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to get people to attend the Ames straw poll; and even this past August, when he came to southeastern Ohio for a rally at a coal mine, the large crowd had to be dragooned into attending by their boss.
But one of the more remarkable things about this fairly unremarkable campaign has been that Willard Mitt Romney, somewhere late in the game, actually lit a spark—it may have been one of those plastic Duraflame logs, but it was still giving off some heat. That is not to say that he is necessarily going to defy Nate Silver and win the election. But it does mean that a guy who spent the early part of this year speaking to an empty football stadium and reciting "America the Beautiful" to befuddled small gatherings was managing by the end of it to draw thousands of people willing to stand in line for a long time in the cold, and that needs to be reckoned with. Who, exactly, were these Romneyites? What, if anything, has he left behind? To put it bluntly, what the heck was Romney '12 all about?
For most of the year, one of the main knocks against Romney’s prospects was that he had no true base, no constituency that felt a deep loyalty to him beyond, perhaps, many of his fellow Mormons and his former Bain Capital colleagues. How could one become president with such a shallow wellspring? But here were many of that rare breed: die-hard Romney supporters. Standing in the very long line to take us from the Columbus airport satellite parking lot to the hangar where Romney would be appearing, I chatted with Rhonda Colvin, a legal secretary, wife of a Bed, Bath and Beyond manager and mother of five who was attending her third Romney event in just a few months, after having unenthusiastically voted for John McCain in 2008. “I’ve been out walking [for Romney] for weeks and just wanted one last opportunity to see him,” she told me. Why did she care so much? “I’ve got five kids, four of them in college, and I just need a future for them,” she said. “I guess it’s just how truly awful things have gotten with the economy. It’s always kind of been the status quo, but no longer—things are spiraling down.” Gas for her drive to work cost more, and her food and utility bills were up: “My everyday life has been affected negatively.” Why was Obama at fault for this; what would Romney do better? “It’s about understanding that a budget has to be balanced, that there are tough decisions you have to make.” Would Romney’s budget be balanced with the tax cuts he’s promising? Yes, because the cuts would spur growth, employment and revenue. “We just haven’t tried it yet,” she said. If Obama was able to squeeze out a win, she said, it was only because so many voters had given up on things being any better: “I chalk it up to ambivalence… A lot of people don’t think it really matters, that it won’t make much difference [who wins].” But it wasn’t just that she preferred the Republican program—she felt really affection for Romney himself. “He’s just simply a good man,” she said. “He’s lived his life married to the same person, he’s raised five sons who are contributing members of society, he’s helped people.”
The turnout for the rally was so big that by the time our bus finally made it to the hangar, most of the people in our cohort were turned away for lack of space. I slipped in through a side door as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was giving the final introductory speech. Then a video appeared on the big screen, a recap of Romney 2012 played to swelling music—images of his kickoff at a New Hampshire farm last year, almost nothing from the dreadful primaries, and then … wait for it … the arrival of Paul Ryan, the camera conspicuously lingering on his PX90 physique. It was all so blatantly an attempt to conjure the sweep and optimism of Barack Obama 2008 (Romney’s latest slogan: “Believe!”) and is easily ridiculed for that, given that this particular movement comes with the heavy sponsorship of American Crossroads, the Koch Brothers and the rest of the plutocratic crew. But the fact is that, synthetic as it all may seem, here were a few thousand people brimming with expectation for their man Mitt, and when he finally appeared, rolling straight into the hangar in his campaign plane, with Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man” blasting over the speakers, and then emerged with Ann and strode down the catwalk with her, looking in their winter jackets like any couple out on the town in Telluride, the place went nuts.
Ann spoke first. For good or ill, she has never been good at concealing her thoughts, and it was not hard to detect in her bearing the awareness that the polls were not looking good. But she soldiered through her bit, a direct appeal to women voters nearly as transparent as her “I love you women!” cry at the Tampa convention—she and Mitt were running for “the women…that are looking for help—those voices are etched in my heart and Mitt’s heart.” Then Mitt, with more voices and hearts: “Your voices are being heard all over the nation and are heard in Ann’s and my hearts….” There was more of this generic pabulum, and then he got down to business. In the Romney campaign’s telling, it is closing on a hopeful, upbeat note—“His closing speech has been positive, future-looking, sweetly patriotic,” writes Peggy Noonan—but this is plainly false: most of the 30-minute speech was a litany of Obama’s failings, delivered with a salesman’s cheer, but a litany of failings nonetheless. “Candidate Obama promised to do so much but has fallen so very short…instead of bridging the divide in Washington he’s made it so much wider… You hoped he would bring people together to solve big problems. He hasn’t, I will…He cared more about his liberal agenda than about dealing with the economy.” Most striking, as others have already noted, was Romney’s riff warning that if Obama is reelected, “he still won’t be able to work with people in Congress and the debt ceiling will come up again and the economy will be frozen.” Yes, it will “come up”—as naturally as flowers in spring, of course. Whereas Romney will be willing to “endeavor to find the good men [across the aisle] who care more about country than politics.” He closed by attacking Obama for his recent aside about voting being the best revenge. “In his closing argument, he asked the American people to vote for revenge. For revenge! I ask Americans to vote for love of country.” Then the peroration: “He says it has to be this way; I say it can’t stay this way…I can’t wait to get started; he’s hoping we’ll settle…That better life is out there waiting for us…Tomorrow we come together for a better tomorrow.”
Even after he left, backing out of the hangar in the plane, hundreds milled around to soak in the atmosphere, snap pictures of the empty lectern. Who are they? Well, let’s make one thing clear: they are, almost to a person, white. It is quite something to be standing in a crowd in a city that is 25 percent African-American and have to search hard for a single non-white face. This demographic reality will be part of the pundit reckoning this week, regardless of the outcome tonight. But in other respects the crowd was notably diverse—there were upper-class suburbanites in nice coats but also less-coiffed Tea Party types with American-flag sweaters and homemade signs. Some, it is plain, have latched onto Romney simply because he is the person taking it to the usurper. I spoke with Jackie Romine, a 62-year-old former state employee who was carrying a big sign: “Media Connect the Dots Benghazi Attack.” “I heard about [the Benghazi cover-up] on Fox and thought I got to get in on it,” she said. “It’s disgusting. It’s a war crime. If he gets reelected, he should get impeached. It’s definitely neglect of duty. I come from a fourth generation military family and my dad would be turning in his grave.” Another younger woman came up to us. “I want to thank you for your sign,” she told Romine. “You’re the only one talking about it—except Fox.” Romine was sorry Romney wasn’t talking about Benghazi anymore on the stump, but still felt some affection for him, going back to an interview she saw him do before the convention, talking about his faith. “He said he was a Christian and believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God,” she said. “That’s what did it for me. If a man can get on TV and confess to being a Christian, that’s pretty good.”
But others were there truly for Mitt Romney. Merrie Ann Nall, an editor, and her husband drove 407 miles from DeKalb, Illinois, in their Cadillac just to see Romney and were thinking of sticking around another day to catch him in Cleveland today. “I wanted to see him so badly,” she said. “For years, I’ve been praying we’d have another Reagan and he’s the closest we’ve had. The optimism, the belief that in America we can do anything we set our minds go, and that we take responsibility for ourselves.” When did she fall for Romney? The Denver debate. “He solidified it in that first debate. He showed his difference with the president—his energy and enthusiasm and not blaming other people.” She was sure Romney would win. “The polls are way off. It’s going to be overwhelming for Mitt Romney. The media is playing it down. I heard on the radio that the polls are weighted 11 points to the Democrats.” Where on the radio? “Rush Limbaugh.” But then she came back again to the Reagan comparison. “Reagan. Romney. Both begin with R, both have six letters. They’re cut from the same cloth of believing in our country. Ronald Reagan would never apologize for our country and neither will Mitt Romney.”
Listening to Nall and others talk about that first debate, I could not help but think back to interviews I had with voters during the South Carolina primary, probably Romney’s lowest point in the primaries. When I asked voters why they had gone with Newt Gingrich, the overwhelming response was that he would destroy Barack Obama on the debate stage. It was as if that moment of confrontation mattered as much as the election itself—these conservatives were appalled by Barack Obama and wanted someone who was going to speak for them, slap him down. And as much as I’ve argued against the media’s overstating of that first debate, I do wonder if Mitt Romney managed, against voters’ expectations (but not mine), to deliver that slap in that first debate and thereby won an allegiance way beyond anything he’s ever enjoyed. A big question, if he loses, is whether that slap was in some ways sufficient for his flock, and whether the country will be able to move on under lame-duck Obama—or whether Mitt Romney’s attempt to live out his father’s dream at all costs has only heightened the atmosphere of cynicism and deliberate ill-will that so bedeviled us these past four years.
Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis