Hours earlier, everything seemed to be going Mitt Romney’s way.
His crowds had been growing steadily bigger, and the campaign’s internal poll numbers suggested victory was close.
Landing at the Pittsburgh airport for the final stop of his presidential campaign on Election Day 2012, Romney and his entourage had been stunned by the sight of several thousand people who had informally gathered atop a parking garage on the other side of the airport’s security fence to scream their support for the Republican nominee.
In near amazement, Romney walked across the tarmac to wave. The presidency, it seemed, was finally in his grasp. Back on the plane en route to his election night rally in Boston, he began to scrape together the makings of a victory speech.
“Freedom so integral to the American experience will again propel us forward to new heights of discovery, to new horizons of opportunity and to new dimensions of prosperity,” Romney tapped out on his iPad, reading the line aloud to his family and campaign aides.
As the candidate subsequently told reporters during his final gaggle in the back of the plane, he had not even considered a concession speech.
But victory was not to be. And the agony of his defeat is revealed in the opening scene of “Mitt,” a new documentary about Romney’s twice failed quest for the presidency.
The film begins in a Boston hotel room as the candidate and his family slowly realize their internal polls were wrong and Barack Obama has easily won a second term.
“So what do you think you say in a concession speech?” Romney, who is seated on a couch, says, looking around the room. Everyone — his family, his campaign aides — looks stricken.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and will get its first public showing this Friday on Netflix, is an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the emotional ups and downs of a presidential campaign.
It is based on hundreds of hours of private footage captured by director Gregg Whiteley, who began filming the Romney family in 2006 as the then-Massachusetts governor weighed a bid for the 2008 GOP nomination. Whiteley, a Mormon, had inquired about doing a film on the candidate after he heard Romney had seen and liked his previous documentary, “New York Doll,” based on Arthur Kane, a cross-dressing punk rocker who had converted to Mormonism before he died.
Romney initially said no, but his son, Tagg, and wife, Ann, pressed him to reconsider after Whiteley offered to document the family’s deliberations about a potential presidential run during their Christmas vacation in 2006 — no strings attached.
After that, the family never said no to Whiteley filming their most private moments on the campaign trail — even as campaign aides fought to keep him out.
Asked how he won Romney’s trust, Whiteley bluntly admitted, “I have no idea. … He let me in, and I just kept filming.”
The result is a film based less on strategy — since Romney’s top aides largely avoided Whiteley’s camera — and more on the personal side of what a campaign is really like for a candidate and his family.
It offers a more human look at Romney, who famously struggled to connect with voters during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
There is Mitt Romney the goofy dad, who wears gloves held together by duct tape and tries to flatten a wrinkled cuff on his tuxedo by ironing it while wearing it. (“Ouch, ouch,” he says.) There is the Mitt Romney who easily tears up when he sees his sons and grandchildren, whom he refers to as “the gopher village." On the trail, Mitt Romney played down his Mormon faith at the advice of his staff, but in the film, he is shown tearfully kneeling in prayer with his family in hotel rooms.
Perhaps more than anything, the film reveals a candidate who was incredibly self-aware, with the ability to joke about his image (“Don’t break my hair,” Romney teases a makeup artist before a television interview) and capable of feeling both confidence and doubt about his own abilities as a politician.
In one scene, filmed in 2008, Romney expresses frustration that he had spent part of his personal fortune building a political brand that helped sink his candidacy.
“We will have built a brand name,” Romney says with an air of regret. “The flipping Mormon.”
Later, Romney repeatedly expresses frustration at being described as a flip-flopper, pointing to the nitpicking of his rivals and the press.
“I can’t do anything about it,” he says, dejectedly. “Your stump speech has changed! See! You’re flipping again. … He was at Burger King last night! McDonald's the night before!”
“It’s so damaging to me,” Romney adds, likening his situation to how Dan Quayle never lost the reputation of being dumb after he argued with a student over the spelling of “potato.” “I think I am going to have to live with it. In which case, I think I am a flawed candidate.”
Throughout the film, Romney speaks bluntly about his own prospects in a way that he never did publicly. He tells a fundraiser that presidential contenders who lose are branded “losers for life.” He rejects his brother’s advice to stay in the 2008 race after losing Florida to John McCain, knowing that there is no hope. “I don’t even want to go to events,” he tells him. “I can’t fake it.”
While Whiteley had editorial control of his film, he had agreed to not use the footage until Romney was finished running for office. But in 2009, as Romney considered another White House bid, the candidate’s sons pushed to release Whiteley’s footage, arguing that it showed a side of their father that had not come through in the campaign where he was defined as the stiff rich guy.
“I was really frustrated that people didn’t really know who my dad was,” Tagg Romney said in an interview. “The campaign team wanted to put out this very controlled image. But Greg’s movie showed a real human being who wasn’t perfect, but was real and understandable and who people could better relate to. I thought it would help more than hurt.”
But the request went nowhere. Romney’s senior strategists felt the film depicted the candidate almost too bluntly. “They didn’t like the idea of him talking about being the ‘flipping Mormon,’” Tagg Romney says.
The candidate, who had not seen the footage, sided with his staff.
While many of Romney’s top campaign aides declined to talk about the documentary — most still have not seen it — Ron Kaufman, a longtime Romney adviser, said the footage they saw in 2009 was different from the completed documentary. Still, he admitted, “Maybe we made a mistake.”
Whiteley says he didn’t realize how different the Mitt Romney he had captured was until he showed the footage to a few of his colleagues, who were stunned to see how changed Romney was in private from the man they had seen on television.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Whiteley recalled.
While his aides were against the film and warned Romney it could be dangerous to his campaign, the candidate continued to give Whiteley access. According to the filmmaker, Romney hesitated just once about all the footage that he was getting. In 2012, the candidate pulled him aside and told him that his aides were worried about what he had captured on camera and asked him to make sure the film he had already shot was secure and couldn’t be hijacked by his opponents.
“That’s the only thing he ever said to me about it,” Whiteley said. “He was welcoming and gracious. Sometimes I wonder if he was too polite to tell me no.”
The film winds its way through Romney’s ups and downs throughout the final weeks of the campaign. It reveals a candidate who was by turns confident and mired in self-doubt.
In one scene, Ann Romney is shown bucking up her husband before his first debate with Obama, as Romney admits that he’s nervous about debating a sitting president. In another scene, shot after the second debate, in which Romney did not perform well, the candidate rejects his family’s attempts to make him feel better.
“I’ll bet it’s 70-30 in the polls,” Romney says ruefully. “80-20? 90-10?”
The Romney family saw the film for the first time when they attended the premiere at Sundance. According to Tagg Romney, his father joked to his family afterwards, “There’s too much reality in this!”
More than a year after his loss, Romney has frequently compared the campaign to a golf game, where afterwards you focus more on your “good shots than the bad,” according to his son. But the movie reminded him of some of the bad days, which he has tried not to dwell on.
“He found it to be bittersweet,” Tagg Romney said. “There are things he sees that he wishes he could change … so reliving some of that was painful. But he also saw how his family rallied around him, so it was nice for him to see that on screen and to be reminded again how real those emotions are.”
Whiteley follows the family right up until the day after Election Day, when Mitt and Ann Romney bid farewell to the Secret Service agents who had been on their detail since he won the nomination. Inside their home outside Boston, the Romneys are alone for the first time in months — Mitt in a chair looking into the backyard and Ann on the couch. She lets out a huge sigh. It’s over.