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Decision Time

How Mitt Romney Made His Decision Not To Run

On the balance sheet of his campaign decision, a brutal GOP primary seems to have been the dispositive factor.

Updated Friday, January 30, at 12:00 PM

Late Thursday evening, Romney’s political operation sent scores of supporters an email under his name inviting them to join a Friday morning conference call to be led by Romney himself for “an update.” The email was signed “All the best, Mitt.” At that point, there was no indication which way he was leaning, but those who were helping him make up his mind said that the decision-making process had come down to two lists: three factors in favor of a run, and two factors against.

The main rationale on the “go” side of the balance sheet was Mitt and Ann Romney’s strongly held conviction that no one in the current field would make a better president. Critics in both parties and the press of course scoffed at this view, but the Romneys believed it to their core, and that belief informed a sense that he had an obligation to his country to once again shoulder the mantle. Following his crushing defeat in 2012, Romney deemed Obama’s second term an utter failure, particularly on issues of national security and the domestic economy. Furthermore, those in Romney’s orbit were convinced that Mitt was not just best qualified, but almost uniquely qualified to turn around the nation and help guide the world to safer pastures. The Romneys considered this assessment a clear-eyed, rational analysis of his skills as a manager and a leader, augmented by the sense of duty he was raised with in the Mormon faith.

The second factor driving Romney toward another run, said those familiar with his thinking, was a host of emphatically encouraging poll results. There is ample public polling suggesting that Romney held leads in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, as well as nationally. And Romney had also been briefed on what one Republican source described as a massive, rolling private polling project recently conducted by a wealthy GOP contributor who shelled out his own money to determine which Republican has the best chance of winning the nomination.

The data, collected over an extended period of time in the first twenty states scheduled to hold caucuses and primaries in 2016, shows Romney with a huge lead across the board, and significantly better favorable/unfavorable ratings than the rest of the large potential field. The other prospects who fare well in the research are Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Maryland physician Ben Carson. The source says that after Romney publically expressed an interest in seeking the nomination, his standing in the polls improved. Romney World discounts the notion that these leads are based simply on name recognition.

Also pressing Romney forward was the sense that he could perform better in 2016 than he did in 2008 and 2012. He believed that if he could convince just a few more voters that he “cares about people” like them he would hold the electoral votes he won last time, while capturing additional states such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, and perhaps others. Some members of his 2012 inner circle criticized his decision to remain modest about his decades of work as a lay minister in the Mormon Church, brushing aside scads of earnest testimony from those whose lives he improved through service and charity. In the last campaign, that portrait was briefly sketched on the final day of the nominating convention in Tampa, only to be overwhelmed by the madcap appearance of Clint Eastwood, and further scarred by relentless efforts of the Obama team and its allies to portray Romney as heartless and out of touch with ordinary Americans. In the 2016 cycle, Romney’s history of ardent community service could have been placed front and center.

Nevertheless, the opposite side of the 2016 ledger contained some grim realities. The Romney clan was only too aware of the toll a presidential run would take, with physical, emotional, and psychic stresses barreling down directly upon Mitt and Ann and spilling onto family and friends around the country. While to the Romneys the call to service rang loud and true, the prospect was daunting to the entire family.

Romney Sees Brutal 2016 Republican Primary

The second “no go” reason weighed far more heavily on Romney—and was likely the dispositive one. People close to the former governor say he believed he would beat Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup if the election were held today. But, like many election watchers, Romney anticipates a vicious Republican nomination fight that will damage and deplete the ultimate winner, while Clinton, virtually unchallenged for her party’s nomination, will be luxuriantly free to squirrel away hundreds of millions of election dollars and step into the general arena, rich and refreshed, against a shattered GOP nominee.

Putting aside, for the moment, the singular Democratic threat, Romney and his core team, up until the moment he made the decision, professed a steadfast optimism that he would become the Republican nominee if he chose to make the race. His candid assessments of the GOP field, according to a source, were crisp, considered, and rather bleak. He singled out two men, both Ohioans, as strong presidential material: Governor John Kasich, who is said to be no fan of Romney as a politician, and Senator Rob Portman, who grew close to Romney as an adviser in the 2012 campaign, when he played the part of Obama in debate prep sessions. But Portman had already said he’s running for re-election to the Senate and will forgo a presidential bid, while Kasich has merely winked in the direction of 2016.

Perhaps most surprising was Romney’s assessment of the major establishment figures who are lining up at the starting gate: Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Public comments from both Mitt and Ann Romney suggested that the Romneys thought Jeb would make a strong candidate and an able president—and that his presence in the contest would remove any obligation Romney felt to seek the office himself.

Republican National Committee Holds Winter Meeting
Photographer: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
     

But those familiar with Romney’s thinking as he's been contemplating a run and over the years say that he has held a jaundiced view of the former Florida governor dating all the way back to his handling of the Terri Schiavo case, and has come to see Bush as a non-entity in the 2016 nomination contest. Romney is said to see Bush as a small-time businessman whose financial transactions would nonetheless be fodder for the Democrats and as terminally weighed down with voters across the board based on his family name. Romney also doesn’t think much of Bush’s political skills (a view mocked by Bush’s camp, who say Romney is nowhere near Bush’s league as a campaigner).  Romney also considers Bush the national Republican figure who was the least helpful to him during his last run for the White House, a position that has darkened Ann Romney’s view of Bush as well.

Romney and Christie became friends in the last cycle, but Romney nevertheless has dismissed his pal as a non-factor. Thanks to the 2012 veep vetting process, Romney became intimately familiar with some of the less publicized controversies from the New Jersey governor’s past, and believes that several of those flaps would mushroom so broadly that Christie soon would be eliminated from consideration by voters and donors.

Romney’s league of senior advisers act stumped when asked about the competition. They often cite Rubio on some scores, but don’t think he has the experience to win the crown in the end, especially since he would be attempting to follow Obama, who, when he first ran, was also young and relatively inexperienced.

Thursday’s news that former Romney top Iowa adviser Dave Kochel had signed on to move to Miami in a few weeks and serve as Jeb Bush’s national campaign manager was a surprise and disappointment to Romney’s core team, who thought of Kochel as an inner circle member of the political family. But Romney himself chalked Kochel’s decision up to his long-standing relationship with Bush’s top strategist Mike Murphy, who is also a former Romney adviser.

In fact, at the senior staff level, Romney had been heartened that with the exception of lawyer Ben Ginsberg (who, also, has long standing ties to the Bushes), all other members were actively encouraging Romney to run, most prominently his chief fundraiser Spencer Zwick.

In addition, although Romney had heard from many of his past bundlers that they were switching to Bush, the Romney camp was convinced he would easily retain a high enough percentage of them to be able to raise the tens of millions of dollars required to secure the nomination.  And Romney had given a pass to many of those donors whose ties to the Bush family predate their associations with Romney himself.

On Thursday night , according to insiders in the Romney camp, the balance sheet had not been fully tallied. But by Friday morning, Mitt Romney had done the math, which, given all the hopes of the past three weeks, must have been painful. 

 This story, and its headline, was updated to reflect the news of Romney's decision.