Why Mitt Romney Lost

Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama because he miscalculated the American people, who demonstrated they care about more than just the economy.

By + More

How could a career problem-solver like Mitt Romney, a successful businessman, manage to lose the presidential election in a year when an exhausted nation is unhappy with the still-high unemployment rate and painfully slow recovery?

The answer is embedded in the question. And it's a miscalculation made by a number of candidates and elected officials who come from the business world and assume everything not only should, but can follow a business model.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The basic assumption (which was true not just of Romney: A team of political scientists based in Colorado made the same assumption, and with a little too much academic confidence in a political science "model" declared Romney would win) is that all people care about is how much money they have. They might care about other things: Women might not like to be called lying hussies if they say they are raped; Latinos might not like it if people assume they are here illegally because their skin is a bit darker; and a lot of voters might be concerned about things like global warming or sophistication in foreign policy. But the pocketbook, it is assumed by those trained in a business model, is paramount.

The flawed certitude about economics is made worse by the second wrong assumption—that people will automatically punish an incumbent in a bad or struggling economy, and give the other candidate a chance despite his or her approach. It also assumes that people will accept the premise that someone coming from the business world knows more about job creation than someone with a law or public service background. Romney is adamant in this view. Asked by debate moderator Candy Crowley whether he would reconsider his position on taxes if his plan for economy recovery didn't add up, Romney became indignant, insisting that it will work. That's what his business model told him, and he wouldn't allow it to be questioned.

[See photos from 100 years in Presidential Races.]

So sure of this set of business assumptions was Romney that he didn't even prepare a concession speech. Never mind that the public polls showed a narrow advantage for Barack Obama (and never mind to those who assailed the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog author Nate Silver). Silver was right in his predictions on every single state, including undetermined Florida, which Silver said was too close to call. Romney wasn't acting like a public servant; he was acting like a businessperson who knows it's not wise to plan for failure. But it didn't work out that way, and it's because the American public is made up of people, not a series of hand-held calculators.

Romney believes business executives are "job creators," and should be given the tax cuts they want to have more money to expand a business. But the role of a business is to make profits, not to create jobs. As Romney showed with his very successful (for him) time at Bain Capital, a company will hire only if it makes financial sense for the bottom line, not because they want to help workers. And voters? They aren't, for the most part, living on capital gains from their business investments. They're living on wages from jobs, and they weren't necessarily convinced Romney was in their corner.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Businesspeople often find themselves quite frustrated when they come to Washington, and it's not because they're not committed to the country or to their constituents. It's because they never accounted for all the variables that make it hard—actually, impossible—to legislate or govern according to a cold business model. If your business is bleeding cash, you might let go a few employees who aren't necessary to the operation. When you're in federal office, you can't just fire Social Security recipients, no matter how much they cost you. In business, you can decide not to expand too soon, to make sure you don't overextend before you have the cash to pay for it. In government, things pop up—wars, natural disasters—that you'll have to find a way to pay for, even if you really can't afford it. And when you're CEO of a company, you get to make executive decisions. That is the opposite of the situation for businessmen-turned-House members, who find it's not so easy when you're one of 435 people in one of two chambers in one of three branches of government. And presidential candidates are often hit with a frustrating reality when they win—that presidents don't have anywhere near as much power as they thought. From the outside, it's easy to accuse Obama of a "lack of leadership." Had Romney won, he would have ended up bonding with Obama over a mutual exasperation with an uncooperative Congress.

But that's how democracy works, and it's why it's so difficult to administer. Romney may indeed be very disappointed this morning over losing the presidency. But he also might have saved himself four years on constant frustration.

  • Read Peter Roff: Obama Won But Has No Mandate
  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Get Rid of the Electoral College?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.