Mitt Romney insider details what went wrong during 2012 presidential campaign
SALT LAKE CITY — For Spencer Zwick, the realization that the man he’d worked for since the 2002 Winter Olympics would not be president didn’t hit until the morning after the election, when he started to introduce Mitt Romney at an event for donors.
Zwick, the Utah native responsible for raising nearly $1 billion as the campaign’s national finance chairman, said he’d introduced Romney countless times as “the next president of the United States. It’s like, wow, that’s really cool.”
But on that November morning in a luxury hotel in Boston, Zwick looked out over the somber crowd gathered for breakfast and could only ask them to welcome Romney and his wife, not the future occupants of the White House.
“One of the hardest things was standing up there,” Zwick recalled. “To just say, ‘Welcome Mitt and Ann Romney,’ this is the moment it struck me that, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s not going to be the president and he should be.’″
Back in Salt Lake City for a family vacation, the campaign insider sat down with the Deseret News for a lengthy interview about the challenges of the race, including the impact of Romney’s Mormon faith and the failure to win over voters Zwick said were more interested in what government could offer them.
“I think if people could have seen and understood Mitt Romney the man, he would be the commander in chief today. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Zwick said. “I know this guy. I’ve seen him in hundreds of situations.”
The 'sixth son'
Often called Romney’s “sixth son,” Zwick, 33, first got to know the 2012 presidential candidate before the Salt Lake Olympics. Zwick was serving as a volunteer translator when he was unexpectedly selected to be Romney’s chief aide, beginning a relationship that continues today.
After the Olympics, Romney asked Zwick to join him in Massachusetts, where Romney successfully ran for governor. Midway through his term, Romney started eying the White House and turned to Zwick to help with the campaign.
Still in his 20s, Zwick assumed responsibility for raising more than $100 million for Romney’s first presidential campaign, which ended with the elevation of Arizona Sen. John McCain as the Republican choice for president. After Romney left the 2008 race, Zwick and Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, founded a private equity firm in Boston, Solamere Capital.
But Zwick was ready to jump back into politics when Romney decided to make another bid for the White House. This time, he created a consulting company separate from the campaign that paid him and hundreds of professional fundraisers nationwide so he could better manage their commissions and other costs.
“I had a goal we could raise more money than had ever been raised before and do it at a better cost of fundraising than had ever been done before,” he said. “We were successful at both objectives.”
Not only did the Romney campaign collect an unprecedented billion dollars, the usual 10 percent fee for fundraising consultants that includes their share of the proceeds was cut in half, Zwick said.
Money not enough
Still, even with all that money, Romney came up short on Election Day. Zwick cities a combination of factors for the outcome, including how Romney’s own campaign portrayed him.
The personal stories intended to help voters connect with Romney, including about his service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, weren’t told until the GOP convention in August.
Had those stories been told sooner, Romney may have not just won, but won big, Zwick said. Voters saw Romney as a smart business executive, he said, but didn’t get a chance to know him as a devoted family man, friend and church member.
“If people had seen some of the stories from the convention, if they could have understood even better the kind of person that he really is, I believe it wouldn’t have been a matter of a few hundred thousand votes. We would have won by much more than that,” he said.
The race turned out to not be as close as many pollsters predicted with President Barack Obama winning reelection with 51 percent of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes to Romney’s nearly 48 percent share of the popular vote and 206 electoral votes.
The campaign was cautious about playing up Romney’s personal life and faith, Zwick said, because research had shown voters would reject Romney if all they knew about him was that he belonged to the LDS Church.
“You want to be careful because people know less about the Mormon faith generally,” Zwick said. “There’s some unknown because you’re relying on people’s perception,” even though his religion received considerable attention in the 2008 race.
“Mitt wasn’t running for president because he has some Mormon agenda. Mitt was running for president and he happened to be a Mormon. It is who he is and it shaped his life and how he raises his kids and his moral values,” said Zwick, whose father, Elder W. Craig Zwick, is a member of the LDS Church’s First Quorum of the Seventy.
“But I don’t think it helps for the American people to think, while of course this was never the case, that there was some Mormon agenda there,” Zwick said. “Because there wasn’t. He didn’t take any direction from Salt Lake City. The First Presidency didn’t call him.”
Primaries hurt Romney
The extended primary calendar in 2012 also hurt Romney, Zwick said, putting too much emphasis on state primaries and caucuses rather than the general election.
Before Romney was formally nominated at the Republican National Convention in late August, he had battled a series of would-be front-runners including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
In 2008, McCain wrapped up the GOP nomination in March, when his last major rival dropped out. But Romney didn’t reach the delegate threshold needed to secure his spot on the 2012 ballot until the end of May and still faced a convention challenge from Paul supporters.
While the Romney campaign was slogging through a long list of GOP primaries and caucuses, the Democrats were free to focus on the general election. The Obama campaign ran ads claiming that as a business executive, Romney outsourced jobs and ran companies that went bankrupt.
Zwick said for months leading up to the GOP convention, it was the Obama campaign that branded Romney. The Romney campaign, he said, used its resources to fight fellow Republicans.
“We were fighting the Rick Santorum war,” Zwick said, spending months being seen as “just moving further and further right, having to create this and fighting the Republican primary process.”
The 47 percent
While voters may not have understood Romney’s personal side, Zwick said there was another message that surfaced during the campaign that proved too difficult to overcome.
It was the idea that a certain percentage of voters, famously identified at 47 percent in a secretly recorded speech to donors by Romney, would choose a candidate based on what sort of government assistance they could expect to receive.
After falling in the polls, Romney eventually said suggesting that nearly half of Americans were victims dependent on government was "completely wrong," but Zwick defended the idea.
“There’s always going to be some percentage — I’m not going to say how many, I’m not going to give a number — but there’s some percentage who want to know what’s in it for me,” Zwick said.
When it came to Romney’s campaign, he said “there were no gifts. There were no handouts.” Instead, what Romney promised voters was a better economy and a more efficient government.
“Mitt was the one that was offering hope for the future, in my opinion,” Zwick said. “Obama was offering programs. And programs won.”
Just hours before Election Day, Zwick shot a video on his cellphone of a rally in New Hampshire at an arena filled with cheering Romney supporters.
The next photo on his phone was of a subdued Mitt and Ann Romney, seated in their hotel room in front of a television set, taken, Zwick said, as they saw it was time to concede the race.
“It was a very surreal moment,” Zwick said of witnessing their reaction to defeat. But he said Romney took it in stride.
“That night was very straightforward,” Zwick said, with Romney heading downstairs to make his concession speech. “he wasn’t trying to hold onto something that was over. But I think he genuinely hoped and believed he was going to win.”
Romney has largely stayed away from politics since the election, becoming chairman of Solamere's executive partner group, planning a new house in Salt Lake County's exclusive Walker Lane neighborhood and spending time with family at his lakeside vacation home in New Hampshire.
He made news last week as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the New Hampshire GOP, warning Republicans in Congress not to fight the president's new health care law by threatening a government shutdown.
Earlier this summer, Romney attracted national attention by hosting a trio of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates at a Deer Valley retreat organized by Zwick for the campaign's top donors, many of whom are investors in Solamere.
"I think there's a big role for Mitt to be a voice of the party," Zwick said. "He has a unique set of donors who are very loyal to him. He's not looking to run himself. So he in a way can be the statesman of the party — if he wants to be."
While Zwick said he had "no idea" whether Romney intends to play a more prominent role in the Republican Party's efforts to reshape itself to become more appealing to voters, it may be a challenge that's hard to resist.
"He's going to be careful not to overdo it. But I think when there are candidates or there is an important issue, he has too big a following and he cares too much to sit on the sidelines in my opinion," Zwick said. "Sitting on the sidelines is not in his DNA."
The same might be said for Zwick, who lives with his wife and their three young children in Massachusetts but still keeps a close eye on Utah politics and has purchased property in Park City. He sees a bright future in Utah politics for Romney's middle son, Josh, and, possibly, himself someday.
"This is a great state. If I were ever going to get involved politically, I would love to do it from the state of Utah," Zwick said, quickly adding, "I don't plan on running for office, anytime soon at least. I have a business that I love and it's growing, and that's where I am completely devoted."
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