Who and What Is Mitt Romney?

Scott P. Yates / Newscom

What is Mitt Romney? It is very hard to tell. Put him on a debate stage, and he can outshine the klieg lights. Last Thursday in Orlando, for instance, the former Massachusetts governor delivered his most dexterous performance of the year, connecting on nearly every thrust and pulling off nearly every parry, in a two-hour duel with his increasingly clumsy rival, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. When Perry tried to obscure his support for a defederalized Social Security system, Romney suggested that he "find that [other] Rick Perry and get him to stop saying" the opposite. When Perry accused Romney of praising President Obama's education policies and, later, of flip-flopping on health care, Romney snapped "nice try" before dismantling Perry's allegations. And Mitt even mustered a joke. "I only spent four years as a governor," he said, contrasting his business career with Perry's quarter century in politics. "I didn't inhale." By the end of the debate, Perry could barely conjure up a coherent sentence.

Orlando was a reminder that Romney, who lost his lead in the polls as soon as Perry entered the race, is a more capable politician than pundits tend to acknowledge. He graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School at the same time. He ran Bain & Co., a topnotch consulting firm, and founded Bain Capital, its prestigious private-equity spinoff. He saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He was, by most accounts, a successful governor in Massachusetts, shepherding an intelligent health-care-reform package with clear conservative roots through a deeply liberal legislature. And compared with Perry, who criticized him during the debate for favoring "the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade before he was against, verse, Roe versus Wade," the man is practically Cicero on the stump.

And yet, away from the stage, and the lights, and the shrink-wrapped soundbites, where real human beings aren't kept at a respectful distance, and résumés and factoids matter less, Romney isn't quite as luminous. Consider his visit, in August, to the Iowa State Fair. As Romney arrived at the Varied Industries Building, an aide emerged from the crowd with lunch: a pork chop on a stick. The boss took a bite, and then, still chewing, struck up a conversation with the nearest retiree, if "conversation" is the right word for what Romney does with voters, which usually involves repeating whatever they say to him immediately after they say it.

"That's the best thing at the fair," the retiree said, pointing to the pork.

"Is that the best thing at the fair?" Romney replied. He pivoted to the retiree's granddaughter. "What are you, about 7?"

"Eight," she said.

"Eight," Romney confirmed. He swiveled back to the retiree. "You in the ag world?"

"The insurance business," the retiree said.

"Insurance business," Romney responded. He seemed determined to reveal nothing—except for how little he was willing, or able, to reveal. The retiree went on to mention that he "lived on Clear Lake," up near the Minnesota border, "for years."

"Beautiful area," Romney said. "I love water." He took another bite of his pork chop.

"Well, we better let you go," the retiree finally said, glancing at the cameras. "We're getting more airtime than you are."

Mitt Romney is missing something. On paper, and onstage, he is almost flawless. But elections aren't decided by algorithms or debate audiences; they're decided on the trail. And the bottom line is that Romney is not very good at winning votes. In fact, over the course of his 17-year political career, he has notched only one electoral victory: the 2002 contest that made him governor. Most of the time—in 18 of his 23 primaries and elections, to be exact—Romney loses. He lost to Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Bay State Senate race; he was expected to lose the governorship in 2006 (but didn't run for reelection); and he wound up losing 16 primaries by the time his 2008 presidential bid was over. The most remarkable part of all this losing is that Romney's support almost always peaks early on, then plummets as Election Day approaches. He was ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire at this point four years ago; he lost both. He was lapping his rivals in most polls from May 2010 to August 2011; he now trails Perry by 8 points. The pattern is clear: the more time Romney spends in front of voters, the less willing they are to vote for him.

The question is why. Political scientists will argue that Romney's fate hinges on forces like GDP growth and unemployment. They aren't wrong. Reporters, meanwhile, will claim that Romney's real problem is policy, or religion, or both: he has offended Tea Partiers by refusing to repudiate "Romneycare" and alienated evangelicals by being a Mormon. They have a point as well. But there is another factor at work here: personality. "Political processes operate through human agency," writes Princeton politics professor Fred Greenstein. "It would be remarkable if they were not influenced by the properties that distinguish one individual from another."

Even Romney understands this. Under the supervision of his new Svengali, strategist Stuart Stevens, a tieless Mitt has labored throughout 2011 to humanize himself, raving about Carl's Jr.'s jalapeño-chicken sandwich on Twitter and telling jobless Floridians "I'm also unemployed," even as reports surfaced about his $12 million beachfront home. (The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) The regular-guy onslaught may be smart politics, but it's also a tacit admission that the only constant in each of Romney's come-from-ahead losses—during booms and busts, in blue states and red states, with platforms that leaned both right and left—has been Romney himself. So what is it about him that tends to repel voters? And what does this say about the qualities that America wants, right now, in a president?

Aubrey Immelman is convinced that Romney will never win the White House. Rangy and bespectacled, with a faint South African accent, Immelman is an expert on the electoral effects of personality, which makes him an outlier in the political-science community. "Studies have shown that personality accounts for as much as 50 percent of variance in actual behavior," he says. "So while structural factors are one half of the equation, there is still another side to the story."

As director of the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., Immelman has spent decades figuring out how to put candidates on the couch. Beginning with an inventory of 170 raw "criteria" first identified by pioneering Harvard personologist Theodore Millon—like talkativeness—he scours books and news reports for confirmation that a candidate possesses each trait. Once Immelman finds two independent sources—for example, a biography indicating that Bill Clinton once received a C for being "too talkative" and a magazine story reporting that he later engaged in endless West Wing "bull sessions"—he checks off the criterion in question.

Usually, Immelman will uncover journalistic evidence for (or against) about 40 of these 170 traits, which he then groups into broader patterns, like extroversion, that are weighted to reflect the results of past elections. (Clinton won twice as an extrovert, for example, so extroversion is worth a lot of points.) When combined, these categorical tallies produce a single score: the Personal Electability Index (PEI). High scores don't always correlate with victory; Michele Bachmann has what Immelman describes as "a very favorable score," even though she's a long shot for the Republican nomination. But candidates with low PEI scores almost never get elected.

Romney's score is a six, which is abysmal. Barack Obama, by comparison, earned a 28, and even failed candidates such as Hillary Clinton and John McCain have cleared 20 (23 and 26, respectively). Romney's problem, according to Immelman, is that modern voters tend to reject two personality types in particular: introverted people, who would "rather lead a life of their own mind than relate to others," and conscientious people, who are "proper, diligent, detail-oriented, and super-rational." Romney isn't especially introverted, but his conscientiousness is pronounced; in fact, it is the only trait of his that qualifies as clinically "prominent."

In the past, Romney's personality may not have hindered his campaign. A number of presidents, including Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, and even James Madison won the White House because (not in spite) of their most Romneyesque qualities: politeness, caution, restraint, systematic thinking, a sense of duty, and so on. But while earlier eras rewarded calculation—until the mid–20th century, public persuasion mattered less than methodical behind-the-scenes maneuvering—the 24/7 news cycle forces candidates to connect. "The opposite of conscientiousness is impulsiveness, so you'd think voters would like conscientious politicians," says Immelman. "But they don't, at least not anymore. On TV, a conscientious person will come across as stiff, because they are not emotional—they're rational." Much like Bob Dole, Bill Bradley, Michael Dukakis, and Al Gore—the other "conscientious" candidates of the television age, according to Immelman—Romney is calculating when he should be connecting.

So why can't Romney connect? Some of it, of course, has to do with DNA; you go to war with the personality you have. But nurture plays a part as well, and Romney probably wouldn't be the man he is today if not for two things: his father and his job.

One of the biggest clichés about Mitt Romney (it appears in every profile) is that he seems less like George Romney's son than George Romney's clone. It is a cliché for a reason. Both had defiant heads of black hair, even at 60. Both were tall, chiseled, and almost superheroically handsome. Both were moderate Republicans from left-leaning states. And both were men of business, faith, and family. There is one detail, however, that no one ever bothers to mention: personality-wise, George and Mitt didn't have all that much in common.

Unlike his son, the elder Romney was a self-made man. After a childhood spent subsisting on the meager wages his father earned as an itinerant carpenter and potato farmer, he ascended rapidly through the ranks of American life, rising from aluminum lobbyist to auto spokesman to CEO of American Motors to governor of Michigan largely on the strength of his blunt, outspoken, almost impetuous manner. A 1967 Life profile nicely captured his appeal: "The impact of the man is widely considered to be his forthrightness, the direct and irresistible force of his personality." George preferred to speak in "plain terms," as he once put it, abandoning his text whenever he felt he wasn't "getting into things deeply enough"—a symptom of the rashness and independence that often irritated Republican power brokers. Regardless, "all that gregariousness," Life concluded, "put him right in touch with [the] electorate," where he could "reach the uncomfortable common heart."

The contrast between father and son couldn't be clearer. George barreled impulsively ahead, confident that he could convince anyone of anything because he'd always convinced them before; Mitt, on the other hand, behaves like a man who was born on third base but worries that he's about to make a mistake that will send him back to second. When George set his sights on Detroit's autoworkers—elusive quarry for a Republican—he simply barged in on union rallies; when Mitt was offered the chance to found Bain Capital, he hesitated, insisting that he get his old job and salary back if the venture failed. "George was a Horatio Alger figure," says Walter DeVries, who oversaw the elder Romney's campaigns and served as a close adviser in Lansing. "He turned those blue eyes on you and you did what he wanted. Mitt is different. He's been given the world, and he seems afraid of losing it."

Maybe that kind of caution is congenital. Who knows? Either way, the events of late 1967 didn't make it any easier for Mitt to shake. Ever since George Romney won reelection in Michigan, pundits and party bosses had touted him as the GOP's most promising presidential prospect. Over the summer, however, Romney's lead had begun to fade. The problem was Vietnam. In 1965, Romney had visited the war-torn Asian country and declared himself a strong supporter of American military intervention; now he seemed to be saying that America's meddling was a mistake. On the last day of August, Romney sat for an interview at a Detroit TV station. "He was exhausted," says DeVries. "Just really tired from campaigning." When the reporter asked Romney to clarify his muddled views on the war, he relied on instinct, as usual, and shot from the hip. "Well, you know, when I came back from Vietnam," he said, "I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

George's campaign never recovered from that remark, and neither, in a way, did Mitt. For an ambitious young man already inclined to caution, the lesson must have been obvious: if a single word can dash your dreams, why leave anything to chance? "The brainwash thing, has that affected us? You bet," Jane Romney, Mitt's older sister, once told The Boston Globe. "Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think [George's gaffe] made him more so. He's not going to put himself out on a limb. He's more cautious, more scripted." Forty years later, when Mitt launched his own presidential bid, he vowed to be "fully briefed" at all times, unlike his father. "It is my nature," he added, "to study things extensively before I jump."

Mitt's career choices only reinforced his conscientious tendencies. In Romney's era, investment banking was "the hottest thing" at Harvard, says classmate Howard Brownstein. But as graduation approached, both Brownstein and Romney sensed that the next big opportunity lay elsewhere, so instead of joining a bank like Salomon Brothers, they accepted jobs with the Boston Consulting Group, a 12-year-old firm known for its "strategic" style of management consulting. "It was a very elitist place," Brownstein recalls. "You've heard of Benjamin Netanyahu? He was one of our colleagues. Someone else had a nuclear-physics degree." Romney's timing was perfect. By the early 1980s, BCG and other, similar firms, including Bain & Co., an offshoot, had redefined the field, perfecting new methods of analysis and financial engineering that helped companies lower costs and improve productivity. They made millions in the process.

Romney excelled at BCG and, later, at Bain. Although he'd once aspired to be an auto executive, he lacked the narcissistic drive of a true CEO, like his father—the ability, as Oxford psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby puts it, to "reject the status quo and charge ahead with his own distinctive vision." Instead, Romney had matured into what Maccoby calls a marketing leader. "Marketing types are very rational," Maccoby says. "They operate by radar, sensing what the market wants and then developing themselves to fit it. They're all about solving problems."

Marketers make for skilled consultants, and Romney was very comfortable (and very good at) crunching numbers, devising solutions, and achieving consensus. But the personality profile has its drawbacks, too, especially for a prospective president. Professionals like Romney, Maccoby notes, are discouraged from "developing deep convictions or a real center"—analysis is king at Bain, not ideology—so they are often willing to adjust their views to meet the demands of the moment, which can seem craven when issues like abortion are involved. (Romney was pro-choice until he ran for president.) In the end, a growth-share matrix can't tell you how to feel a voter's pain; a PowerPoint presentation can't convince a crowd that you share their convictions. "Mitt is too intelligent to be ideological," says Marc Wolpow, a former managing director at Bain Capital. "He was trained to think things through rationally, to argue both sides of an issue. In a small group setting, particularly among similarly educated, successful individuals, he can charm and impress with that intellectual rigor. His challenge is that there are 300 million people in America. He seems to connect naturally with only a small handful of them."

Back at the state fair, Romney was glad-handing another gaggle of Iowans when a squat woman with short black hair tottered over. She was wearing a Special Olympics lanyard and a sizable green "Torch Run 2005" T-shirt. She tapped Romney on the arm. "Hi, how are you?" he said, turning toward her.

"I have special needs," she whispered. "Is there anything you can do for us?"

If Romney loses the Republican nomination, the reasons won't be mysterious: "Romneycare," Mormonism, and the rise of a rival, Rick Perry, who is better at connecting with voters. (Perry's Positive Intensity Score among Republicans is a league-leading 24, according to Gallup; Romney's has fallen as low as 11.) By the same token, if Romney becomes president, it won't be a surprise to see him succeed; his conscientiousness has already helped him oversee a successful state, a successful business, and a successful Olympics.

The only mystery now, the only surprise left, is Romney vs. Obama. Supporters say that Romney would be "more himself" in a general-election setting, where he'd no longer have to pander to the Republican fringe. But it's possible, too, that being himself would be the problem. In America, voters tend to replace sitting presidents with polar-opposite personalities: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. But as Aubrey Immelman points out, the rational, technocratic Obama "is one of the few presidential candidates since 1996 who can be labeled conscientious," just like Romney. Faced with a choice between the conscientious devil they know and the conscientious devil they don't, voters may not be as motivated to switch sides—especially when the incumbent scores higher on empathy, confidence, and comfort in his own skin.

As the woman in green awaited Romney's answer, the candidate scanned the crowd for an aide. "I tell you," he finally began. "Is there, uh, uh, a need you have right now that you need, uh, help with?" He made a signing motion with his right hand: Do you want me to sign a petition or something? Because I have people for that.

"No," she said. "What I'm asking right now is, if you became president, would you forget people like me?"

Romney started to answer, but stopped, midsentence, to recalculate. "I'm running for people like—for the people of the nation," he said. "All the people of the nation. Not just a few, but everybody. Including you." At last, Romney realized that this woman wasn't looking for a favor. She was looking for some compassion. He patted her elbow three times, then let his arm fall to his side. "I care very deeply about all of our citizens," he added, as if even he needed to be convinced.

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