In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see the new doc about Mitt Romney?
Given that all my other pieces here are about yelling at kids to get off my lawn, I could understand the belief that I spend my days sitting on a porch in a lawn chair being grumpy at the world. But before all that I worked for the Obama campaign doing data work in North Carolina for all of 2012. It was exhausting and exciting and unhealthy and incredible all at the same time. Like so many of my colleagues, once everything was over and I actually had an ounce of free time I decided to occupy it with reading as much as I could about the election. I’ve read almost every book that’s been written about the campaign. Hell I was reading short e-books about the campaign during the campaign. It was always interesting to see what journalists got right (that we used data incredibly well) and what they were completely clueless about (how we used that data). I had read so much that by the time the highly-anticipated sequel to Game Change called Double Down came out there really wasn’t a whole lot of never-before-seen content. I finished it craving an account that actually understood what we did or at least brought a fresh perspective to the race. But I never thought that a documentary about the guy I worked to beat would be that account.
Mitt isn’t about the inside politics of a national campaign. It’s not about the internal struggles or the war room drama. You don’t see Paul Ryan until 70 minutes in. You don’t see the campaign manager until 80 minutes in. It’s the story of a man and his family on the campaign trail since 2007.
When you work on a political campaign it’s easy to lose perspective on how you view your opponent. For so long I held this belief that Romney was completely out of touch with working-class Americans. And while Mitt didn’t show any evidence that directly refutes that belief, there was a really touching scene where he talks about his father, former Governor of Michigan and candidate for president George Romney. He was showing the notes he took while on stage at the first debate. At the top of the first sheet was “DAD”. He went on to explain:
“I always think about dad and about [how] I’m standing on his shoulders… There’s no way I’d be running for president if dad hadn’t done what dad did. He’s the real deal. The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became the head of a car company and became a governor. It would have never entered my mind to be in politics. How can you go from his beginnings to think ‘I could be head of a car company. I can run for governor. I can run for president.’ That gap. For me, I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. For me, it’s moving that far. (moves his hands, palms facing each other, slightly apart) For him it was like that. (moves hands considerably apart)”
Even after the first debate I felt so confident that Obama was going to win that I couldn’t imagine the conversations going on at Romney HQ. I thought they had to be living in some strange bubble where only good news gets passed along. But after the first and second debates it was Romney who was even-handed. He knew he did well in the first debate and he knew he didn’t do as well in the second. This was in the face of his family being excessively supportive (as they should be). Even on election night as everyone else is trying to find ways to hold on to the belief that he can win, Mitt is well aware that it’s over and seems remarkably relaxed.
I remember feeling so strongly that Mitt was this out of touch rich guy. His life consisted of car elevators and dressage horses! I never once thought that those things helped make his wife’s life a little easier as she dealt with multiple sclerosis. And while those things may seem excessive, if you were as rich as the Romneys wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make coping with a disease like MS easier?
But while Mitt did such a better job than the campaign in making the candidate seem human, there were many puzzling things the film revealed how informed Romney was about the state of the race. In the last few weeks of the race he saw huge crowds everywhere he went. I understand how he could feel like things were on an upswing. But a look at the numbers would have quickly brought him back down to Earth. During election night Ann mentioned that they were hoping to win Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Polling just before election day never showed any of those states as even being close. The fact that the candidate and his wife weren’t aware of their path to victory is baffling to me. They got most of their return information from external news sources rather than their internal analytics team. But was he actually not briefed on these things or did the documentary just not show any of that?
The scene that hit me the most took place the day after election day at Romney HQ in Boston. After he and his campaign manager each spoke, you saw the tears of sadness streaming down the faces of his staff. Most people don’t understand what’s in those tears. For so many of us this race meant moving across the country, barely seeing friends and family, putting off school for a year, relationships collapsing under the stress of the campaign, 3:30 a.m. wake up times, 10:00 p.m. checkout calls, 11:00 p.m. dinners, and more takeout than you can imagine. It was our entire life and to not have it all end with a victory is nothing short of devastating. I was lucky to be on the winning side that was filled with tears of happiness on election night. I can’t imagine how I would have felt had the results been different.
Should You See It? If you have Netflix make sure to watch Mitt. If you don’t have Netflix what the fuck is wrong with you; are you 90? Because while it’s easy to get caught up in the passions of a long political campaign and view your opponents as enemy robots seeking to destroy your entire existence, it’s healthy to remember they’re people too, from the field intern all the way up to the candidate.
Image source: ABC