Why Mitt Romney Lost: Views From CPAC

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Nearly five months after his loss, conservatives say he was just not the right man for the times.

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Kevin Lamarque (Reuters)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Mitt Romney was greeted like a hero at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday, drawing sustained applause and shouts of "We love you!" during a self-deprecating speech thanking the conservative activists for their early support for his candidacy and cautioning them against "pessimism" even in the face of electoral loss.

"We've lost races before, in the past, and those setbacks prepared us for larger victories," Romney said. "It is up to us to make sure that we learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes, so that we can win the victories those people and this nation depend upon."

And what exactly were those mistakes? I asked a selection of the regular folk attending CPAC for their views. Why, exactly, did Mitt Romney lose?

Opinions were split but mainly fell into four categories that suggested attendees at the three-day conservative confab, now in its 40th year, did not see their views as being any part of the problem during Election 2012. What they thought was at issue:

Romney's personality. "He didn't have the right personality," said Michael Esteve, 22, a law student at the University of Baltimore. "Elections are all about personality. ... He was up against a very likable guy." Another student, 20-year-old Washington College sophomore Daniel Smith, attending CPAC for the fourth time in his short life, blamed Romney's inability to "communicate effectively." He "just didn't seem like a relatable guy," he said.  

Romney's campaign advisers. "He had horrible advice from his handlers," said Edward Woodson, 50, a radio host from Miami. "He allowed the Democrats to define him and when your opponent defines you you lose." The fact that the Democrats defined him as "Richie Rich" didn't help much, either, he said. Washington College senior Roy Littlefield, 21, also blamed Romney's campaign. "A lot of little things Obama slipped on and he didn't expose him." Romney didn't go after Obama hard enough.

Romney's inadequately conservative politics. "He wasn't a conservative, so conservatives stayed home," said Matthew Burke, 51, of Gilbert, Ariz. "They keep putting up these RINO conservatives..." -- such as Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and John McCain -- "there's a long line of them and they always lose." Noted David Ryan, 50, a retired chemical operator who spent his career making ethyl cellulose coatings for time-release cold medicines from wood: "Right now at this point in time people wanted a real solid conservative Republican. They see too much similarity between the socialist policies of Barack Obama and the choice that they had." A real conservative might have inspired and turned out the conservative troops.

Paul Ryan. "I don't think his vice presidential choice really energized anyone," said Littlefield. Woodson proffered the same explanation, observing that the Ryan pick did nothing but underline Romney's perceived personality deficits. "The perception was two uptight white guys," he said, adding that if Romney had picked Senator Marco Rubio he might have energized people more and maybe even won Florida.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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