By Marc Pitzke in Boston
It was still early, but defeat already hung in the air. Mitt Romney had hoped to celebrate his victory here in the ballroom of the Boston Convention Center, but the atmosphere never seemed quite right. Guests were standing around looking somewhat lost, clenching their beer bottles with eyes locked on their smartphones. Some had left their winter coats on as if they were only planning to stay briefly.
"Psst," a woman in a blindingly bright-red outfit whispered in a conspiratorial tone. "I voted for Obama. Just don't tell anybody."
No, that's not something that the people convened in Boston want to hear. They've come to celebrate their triumph and the return of Republican rule. Some have even brought babies along. A festive buffet has been set up out in the foyer, offering chicken, pork roast and exotic salads. Still, the fact that each person is limited to two alcoholic beverages makes one wonder whether they were expecting from the very start that this wouldn't exactly be an evening of boozy merrymaking.
When he finally did take to the stage, it was already almost 1 a.m. local time. One could see how much the defeat weighed on him. His usual swagger had noticeably vanished. His voice was hollow. His robot-like smile has been reduced to a thin line.
Hurt by Ryan's Extremism
Romney thanked his aides, his supporters and Paul Ryan, his running mate, saying: "Besides my wife Ann, Paul is the best choice I've ever made." But there's plenty of reason to doubt it seeing that Ryan and his extremism unquestionably contributed to Romney's defeat.
On Tuesday, Romney wore a blue sports coat bearing a small elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party. For his speech, he changed into a dark-black business suit and a patriotic tie with red, white and blue stripes. "The election is over," he said, "but our principles endure." He congratulated President Obama and called for bipartisanship -- although he didn't provide any other hints as to what the future might hold in store.
The crowd was waiting for an uplifting speech that would numb their pain. It wanted to hear a grand address like the one that John McCain, the highly respected senator and Republican nominee of the last election, gave after losing to Obama in 2008. But Romney didn't deliver. He stuck to flowery words, merely encouraging the audience to give Obama amiable support. "The nation chose another leader," he said. "And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation." Then it was a lot of waving, pained celebration, a family photo -- and goodbye.
Now Romney and the Republicans are left facing the ruins of their arrogance. There's no denying that victory seemed within reach. But, in the end, it was a defeat -- and a rather unambiguous one at that.
After such a long journey, this is a bitter end. Romney has been hacking his way through the political jungle for almost two decades as he follows the trail blazed by his father George, who withdrew from the fight to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.
It's also bitter because it fits a pattern of first-time defeats: Romney was defeated in 1994 during his first attempt to become a senator. He was defeated in 2008 during his first attempt to become the Republican presidential nominee. And now he has been defeated in his first -- and surely final -- attempt to win a ticket to the White House.
The quotation that will remain freshest in the minds of many will be the title that the New York Times put on a contribution he submitted in November 2008, at the height of the auto-industry crisis: "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Detroit would eventually avenge the insult by throwing its weight behind Obama.
And, lastly, it's a particurly bitter loss for Romney after all the encouraging scenes of recent days. There were the massive crowds of thousands and tens of thousands of supporters hailing Romney wherever he went. It was the enthusiasm of a grassroots movement. The stages he stood on even looked presidential, with their huge, star-studded banners, big-sky backdrops and a sea of American flags stretching to the horizon.
The Chameleon Candidate
So, what caused the defeat? Was it the multiple slip-ups and gaffes that Romney stoically shrugged off? Was it the millions that Obama's strategists pumped into TV ads depicting Romney as a coldhearted capitalist? Was it the threat to Big Bird, the "binders full of women" or his consistently wooden appearances?
When all is said and done, there is only one person who deserves the lion's share of the blame: Mitt Romney. For months, Romney continued to change his stances to the point that voters ultimately had no idea who the "real" Romney was. It wasn't until the very end that Romney dared to be his putative self again. But it was too late. Even Massachusetts, the state that Romney served as governor for four years, would ultimately turn its back on him.
Things had looked different for a while. Romney thought he had pulled things off back during the first TV debate in Denver. At the time, he completed a calculated backwards flip-flop, transforming himself for the last time -- from the "strictly conservative" Mitt that he had presented himself as during the primaries to a decidedly more centrist Mitt. It was a bold but transparent maneuver.
On election night, the first exit polls still kept Romney feeling confident. For the majority of voters, the economy had been the most important issue -- and it was, after all, Romney who came across as being the numbers guy, the executive who would lead the nation back to health. In the end, though, they said "no thanks".
The evening ultimately proved to be a nail-biter. Guests in Boston were forced to look on as their hero's fortunes melted away on two large screens. At some point, the jazz group playing next to the stage put down their instruments.
Romney Loses One State After the Other
Then Florida seemed to lean toward Obama before falling back to Romney. Then it went back to Obama. Back to Romney. Ohio experienced similar shifts in the polls. Romney led in the "popular vote" in the state. Romney captured Utah.
In the end, though, none of it helped.
Romney's top strategist, Ed Gillespie, came out and continued to express his optimism, saying the party would throw a huge election-night party and that: "We feel very good." Ohio Senator Rob Portman, one of Romney's closest supporters then appeared in a patchy video feed. "That's for your hard work," he said. "I've never been prouder."
But then more and more dominos started to fall. Romney lost Massachusetts, his home state, to Obama. Then he lost Michigan, the state where he was born. Then he had to cede Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Mexico to his Democratic Party challenger.
Romney Takes Two Hours to Concede Defeat
Things then grew deadly silent in Boston, and the expressions on peoples' faces grew solemn. Nobody moved. Just one young boy continued to wave a small American flag.
By then, the rumors were already circulating that Jeb Bush, George W. Bush's brother and the former governor of Florida, had called to say that Florida had been lost -- and, with it, the presidency.
Then Romney's bodyguard, Garrett Jackson, tweeted a photo from behind the scenes showing the Romney family sitting around on white leather sofas as they took in the results. "Gov and @anndromney having a great time with the grandkids," Jackson wrote. The expressions on their face, however, told a different story -- with Romney looking tense and serious. By then, he seemed to know -- after all, this is the numbers guy.
Sarah Palin, the unsuccessful 2008 vice-presidential candidate, also looked distressed. She only appeared in Boston via video -- courtesy, of course, of Fox News -- and she was greeted with frosty silence. "I'm disappointed," she said, "but I am still keeping my fingers crossed." When asked for her thoughts on the possibility of Obama getting re-elected, she responded: "Truly a disastrous setback!"
At precisely 11:12 p.m., Palin's worst fears came true as the first US networks called Obama the winner of the election. It took exactly 12 minutes longer for that news to come than it did in 2008.
Afterwards, it took nearly two hours before Romney appeared to give his final speech and concede defeat to Obama.
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