This question was asked after a “Today” show appearance early in the 2008 primary season after the largely unknown Mitt Romney had thrown his hat into the presidential race. Many are still asking it six years later, even after Romney won the Republican nomination in 2012 and lost in the general election.
Director Greg Whiteley (New York Doll) attempts to answer that question through Mitt, a new documentary created from footage following the Romneys on the campaign trail in 2008 and 2012. Mitt is available now for instant streaming through Netflix.
A political axiom goes: “if you don’t define yourself, your opponent will do it for you.” Did Romney lose in 2012 because people didn’t know “the real Mitt”? Would Mitt (the documentary) have made a difference in the general election if it had come out two years earlier? Is this documentary even aimed at those critical (or skeptical) of Mitt Romney in the first place?
What’s interesting about Mitt as a documentary is what it doesn’t have. It is not a postmortem on the 2012 election with analysis on why Romney lost or what factors could have made a difference. Whiteley doesn’t interview political analysts to share opinions on either candidate, nor delve into statistics about voting patterns or demographics. No one from the voting public is shown explaining why they did or didn’t vote for Romney. In fact, Whiteley doesn’t interview anyone at all, other than a few random questions for one of Romney’s sons at a campaign stop.
Mitt also not a comprehensive look at “the Romney campaign” in either 2008 or 2012. Snippets of public events are shown, but arranged haphazardly, with the 2012 primary season (and the heated debates with Evangelicals about Romney’s religion that were covered in last year’s documentary Us And Them: Religious Rivalry in America) skipped entirely. There’s no discussion of political strategy, and only a few sound-bites about actual campaign issues. His infamous speech about America’s “47%” is mentioned (and lightly rebutted) but Mitt doesn’t concern itself with answering criticisms against the Romney campaign.
Mitt doesn’t focus on Romney’s Mormonism either, despite the Mormon filmmaker behind the camera. Romney acknowledges that he’s known as “the flippin’ Mormon” by some (“flippin’” presumably referring to “flip-flopper” politically, but you could argue the “flippin’ fetcher” Mormon swear word usage may also be fitting). But, apart from sharing a couple of family prayers, there’s no discussion of how his religion informed (and/or hampered) his candidacy.
What Mitt *is*, is a compilation of “home movies” — albeit almost none of it from the Romney’s “home”: Family footage of Mitt & Ann Romney and their children at various stops on the campaign trail talking about how things are going.
The vignettes in Mitt show us glimpses of Romney’s character and personality — useful for those who believed those two things didn’t exist — but don’t show him as a leader. We see Romney being a good husband, good father, and all-around Good Guy, but short of a few comments about the plight of small businesses, no focus on Romney’s opinion on political or social issues, or his vision for America. Couple this with the lack of other talking heads and actual analysis and its easy to see why some of Mitt‘s early reviews criticize it for being content-free and pointless.
This was obviously a deliberate choice by Whiteley and company, but begs the question: who is this documentary targeted at and what is the desired message? Is it just a valentine for Romney fans? Is it meant to change the minds of those who didn’t vote for Romney? None of the above? (After all, did even the staunchest Romney critics suggest he wasn’t a good father or husband behind the scenes? This seems like a grand rebuttal to a huge straw man.)
It’s possible Mitt may have changed some minds had it screened before the election, but only because voting decisions are notoriously fickle. (Researchers have found, for example, a statistically significant difference in voting patterns depending on whether the local college football team won or lost the week before. A home team victory correlated with satisfaction with the status quo and higher votes for the incumbent, a loss the opposite. And this has been true for decades.) If the documentary convinces anyone who didn’t vote for Romney that they should have, I think that says more about that voter’s priorities than any notable virtue of the film.
Since Mitt makes clear this isn’t a first salvo preparing for another run in 2016 — the Romneys are D-U-N done with presidential politics — you could argue that including any deep 2012 electoral analysis would be pointless after the fact anyway. Perhaps the goal is just to show some personal glimpses of a family that few knew well outside of campaign ads, with no intent to “change minds”?
One thing makes me wonder, though… A recurring scene in Mitt has Romney’s wife or children stating what a capital-G Good Person he is. “If only people got to know how you really are…” says one son. “There’s this bad caricature of you out there…but you’re a good person” says another. “This is why you don’t get good guys running for president.” says another in a moment of campaign frustration. I got the impression that Romney’s family genuinely believes that his being a Good Person was the only thing that really mattered. And that if the voting public could just see that, they would be compelled to vote for him, policy positions aside. It’s possible that Romney’s family (if perhaps not Romney himself) believes that the narrow focus of Mitt on Romney the person rather than specific “issues” should change people’s minds, more than it actually will.
Mitt won’t be for everyone, especially those expecting deep inner-circle details about how presidential campaigns are run. Fans of Romney will enjoy “hanging out” with him and his family through Mitt the film, although non-fans will probably just shrug their shoulders.
Grade for Romney Fans: B+
Grade for Everyone Else: ???
Additional Notes and Comments:
(1) Why did Romney lose in 2012? (WARNING: amateur political analysis ahead…) It’s possible the answer was not because he’s Mormon, not because he’s rich, but because there wasn’t enough distinction between him and the incumbent, and in that situation the incumbent will always win. Obama — despite however much his supporters AND detractors might wish him to be — is not a liberal. (Neither is Hilary Clinton.) As essentially a moderate Republican in office, Obama didn’t leave Romney (fundamentally also a moderate Republican) anywhere to go but further right — out of his comfort zone — in order to present any clear distinction.
Romney may have had a significant disadvantage from the beginning. Had his opponent been, say, Dennis Kucinich, I believe we would have seen Romney run clearly and confidently as “moderate-Massachusetts-Governor” Romney and won easily, but the fact that Kucinich never sniffed the Democratic nomination in 2008 (nor did his platform get much traction) shows just how “right” the “left” party has become. Political analysts constantly comment on how the Republican party is “struggling”, but seem oblivious to the reason: the GOP is losing battles because they’ve already won the war. America has had a “Republican” president for the last five years; he just has a D by his name.
(2) Not that it in itself would have made a difference, but it may be telling that Romney got fewer Mormon votes in 2012 than Bush did in 2004. Certainly there were plenty of Mormons who were open about not supporting him, and that may be symptomatic of a larger problem that torpedoed his campaign — “Yeah, he’s a nice guy, and Obama hasn’t been all that great, but do I *trust* Romney to run the country?” If many co-religionists had trust problems, you can imagine how non-LDS may have had a larger hill to climb in order to support him.