POLITICS OCTOBER 22, 2007
The thought that comes to mind at my first Mitt Romney event in Manchester, New Hampshire, has nothing to do with politics or, for that matter, Mitt Romney. It has to do with a company called Ameriprise Financial. Pretty much the only thing I know about Ameriprise is that its corporate spokesperson is Dennis Hopper, of Easy Rider fame. Every now and then I catch Hopper's mug on television, whereupon he exhorts aging baby boomers to rebel against—well, against what it's not entirely clear—by having Ameriprise plan their retirements. It's a completely preposterous pitch: Is there anything less rebellious than forecasting your monthly spending needs into your eighties? Still, if I were an aging baby boomer, I'd probably sign up with Ameriprise. I'd appreciate the appeal to my self-image.
A Romney town-hall event is, in its own way, a lot like an Ameriprise commercial. Romney's press schedule announces the chance to “Ask Mitt Anything,” and there are big ASK MITT ANYTHING signs flanking the candidate when he speaks. There is something completely preposterous about this, too: If you spend a day going to various “Ask Mitt Anything" events, you quickly realize that, while you can ask Mitt anything, Mitt pretty much gives the same eight or ten answers over and over again. But here's the thing: If I were a New Hampshire voter—that famously tough-minded species—I'd probably go for it. This guy gets me, I'd think. At least in the way a savvy corporation understands its customers.
IF THE NOMINATION went to the candidate most at home delivering PowerPoint presentations, Romney would almost certainly win it. His monologues overflow with facts and statistics. But they're so exquisitely organized, they build so efficiently to their punchlines, you almost forget they require meticulous preparation. The only time this occurred to me was at another “Ask Mitt Anything,” when Romney fielded a question about tort reform. “Last year, America's corporations—no, I've got to step back, I need to give you more ground work,” he said, briefly exposing some mental circuitry. He continued: “The only way a nation like ours can stay ahead of China forever ... is by having better innovation and technology. ... This statistic should alarm you: Last year, American corporations spent more money fighting tort claims, paying off tort claims, than they spent on research and development.” This, like all of Romney's answers, was punctuated by an abrupt, “Thank you.” On to the next slide.
Romney's analytical style is hands-down his most compelling attribute. It's what made him successful as a management consultant and private-equity-fund manager. And it's what most distinguishes him from the man he'd like to succeed (though both hold MBAs from Harvard). But management consulting isn't the most obvious preparation for life on the campaign trail. Later, we show up at a diner in Derry where Rudy Giuliani stopped the day before. Romney can look less like a flesh-pressing candidate in these situations than like a video of a candidate that's being fast-forwarded. At one point, a hunter in an orange baseball cap asks about global warming. Romney doesn't so much answer the question as strafe him with bullet points: Nuclear power-clean coal-efficient vehicles- liquefied coal-solar-wind-ethanol- biodiesel. Romney is talking even faster now than during the Q&A setting, as if to compensate for the relative inefficiency of one-on-one campaigning.
On the way out, Romney sees the hunter again. “What were you hunting with today, a 20-gauge?” he asks. “No, I had a brand new, over-and-under 12-gauge,” says the hunter. This is another Romney tic. When forced to make small talk, his habit is to guess at some trivial detail. It's of a piece with his general appetite for data. The problem is that it's constantly setting him up to be wrong, whereas Romney is a man who likes to be right. Later on, at a farm store, Romney asks the owner, “You've got about five thousand [square] feet here?” (right answer: 4,000) and whether an employee is her daughter (nope). At our final stop in Derry, Romney spots a man wearing a foreign-looking soccer jersey. “That's a Reebok shirt, isn't it?” “I don't know,” says the man. Suddenly, Romney comes about as close to losing his cool as I've seen all day: “It is. It says Reebok right there.” He's practically pleading as he points to the man's back: “You have a Reebok insignia right here.”
Romney is fond of casting himself as the underdog. With Giuliani effectively skipping Iowa and Romney banking on victories there and in New Hampshire to propel him to the nomination, the latter has taken on heightened importance. Polls show Romney as the front-runner in both states, but his lead over Giuliani here is rapidly diminishing. The press hounds him about this all day. Romney's response is to marvel at how a guy like him, who began the race in the single digits, could now be leading in several states. It's the kind of spin all candidates engage in, but Romney says it so earnestly you'd think he'd arrived on the campaign trail penniless from Guatemala, not as a former governor with a huge personal fortune.
Even if it's true that Romney has overcome some serious hurdles—his lack of national name-recognition, for one—his chiseled features and immaculate tailoring belie his underdog claim. He looks like the opposite of an underdog— an overdog. Romney inadvertently reinforces this impression from time to time. A man tells Romney his daughter attends Michigan State. “My brother is on the board of Michigan State!” Romney gushes. Later, at a bakery up the street, Romney recalls a similar bakery from his youth “not far from my parents' summer home.”
THE CENTRAL irony of the Romney campaign is this: Everything Romney has achieved in life, he's achieved thanks to his relentless empiricism and analytical rigor—in a word, his rationality. As a young consultant assigned to Monsanto, Romney learned so much about the firm's operations that its executives assumed he had an engineering degree. (He didn't.) When Romney took over as CEO of Bain & Company in 1990, the consulting firm was in such lousy shape it could barely make payroll. Romney put Bain on sound footing by rescheduling its debts and renegotiating its contracts with vendors.
Accomplishments like this make Romney pretty close to an ideal Republican candidate, especially after the highly unempirical Bush era. And yet, it turns out that something as seemingly irrelevant as his religion inspires irrational fear and loathing among the people who will anoint the GOP nominee, particularly in the South. Life has taught Romney there's no such thing as a problem that defies logic, at least not if you think about it hard enough. But here's one that does. Worse, it's entirely arbitrary. It's not Romney's fault he was born into the Mormon faith. Nor is it his fault that, over the last generation, conservative voters have come to see religion as a proxy for moral character. The whole thing must be maddening.
The last event of the day is yet another “Ask Mitt Anything,” this time at a church in Merrimack. Midway through the Q&A, a hard-looking man named Ron gets up and says, ominously, that he has a comment and a question. The comment comes first: “I'm sick and tired of hearing from the left-wing media” about how the governor's religion disqualifies him from the presidency. The crowd breaks into heavy applause before Ron can even finish, and Romney looks relieved. Something I hadn't realized before this moment suddenly occurs to me: Romney's Mormonism may, in a perverse way, help him in a place like New Hampshire. Without it, he's just another well-spoken preppy with a square jaw. With it, he becomes instantly sympathetic, someone you can relate to—the victim of circumstances beyond his control. Everything about Romney may scream “overdog.” But, at this moment, he is the opposite.
This article appeared in the October 22, 2007, issue of the magazine.