BOSTON –- It was a devastating night for Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, failing to unseat an incumbent president who appeared at one point deeply vulnerable to serving just one term.
Romney was gracious in defeat after a decisive loss in the Electoral College that was in contrast to a small margin of victory for President Barack Obama in the national popular vote. The stinging disappointment was etched clearly on the faces of Romney's sons and daughters-in-law, who joined him on stage after a five-minute concession speech.
"I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction," Romney told a few hundred supporters and staffers in a stunned convention center ballroom. "But the nation chose another leader, and so Ann and I join you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation."
Romney spoke a few minutes after 1 a.m., following a few hours of deliberations among his top campaign advisers over whether to concede or to wait for all the results. Eventually, the 65-year old former private equity CEO and Massachusetts governor emerged to concede.
"I ran for office because I'm concerned about America. This election is over but our principles endure," Romney said. "I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy, and renewed greatness."
But the Grand Old Party has perhaps never looked so old, and it faces deep questions about how it will fix its inability to attract support from younger voters and from minorities, particularly Hispanics. Obama won 72 percent of Hispanics and 91 percent of African Americans. Attention within the conservative world will turn quickly to a 41-year-old senator from Florida, a son of Cuban immigrants named Marco Rubio.
"Senator Rubio - I hope you're getting your arm loose," former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer wrote on Twitter.
The story of how and why Romney lost will be dissected at length. There are a few broad lanes to drive down. He began with a personal profile ill-suited for the current moment, that of an older white male who looked like a Wall Street banker from the '50s. One veteran Republican in the ballroom here said that for most of the past year and a half –- until Romney turned a corner with the first debate on Oct. 3 -– the party's attempt to accept Romney "was like trying to pass a gallstone."
Romney let himself be defined over the summer by the Obama campaign as a vulture capitalist who did not care about the middle class.
"Romney's ultimate problem is that he was disqualified by the fact that voters didn't believe he would fight for the middle class. He missed his chance to define himself when we were defining him," Bill Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary in the Obama administration who helped run Priorities USA, the biggest super PAC supporting Obama's reelection, told The Huffington Post.
There was a GOP convention in August that failed to give Romney the boost he needed. And then there was the awful month of September, which went from bad (stories about staff infighting) to worse (Romney's bungled response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi) to just awful (the release of Romney's 47 percent remarks).
Several Romney campaign aides said Tuesday night that they were most stunned by the results in Florida, where they expected to get a clear win. Obama led early Wednesday in The Sunshine State by just over 60,000 votes, out of 8 million cast. Romney did not get the numbers he needed in the crucial Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando. The Hispanic share of the vote went from 14 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2012, and that group went for Obama 60 percent to 40 percent.
The election forecast had begun to look grim for Romney over the last week. But just two weeks ago, Romney looked formidable. He led the national tracking polls by several points and had built up a few weeks of momentum. And then at some point around the end of October, things began to shift. A look at Ohio over the last 10 to 14 days gives some clues as to what happened there.
In the Buckeye State, Romney battled unsuccessfully for months to win a stubborn swath of middle-class white voters, who were behind him in much greater numbers in many other states. Obama's campaign kept Romney on his heels all summer and drove up his negatives with attacks on his career in private equity at Bain Capital. Romney is "not one of us," the Obama campaign told the Ohio middle class. And it worked.
But after the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, Romney's internal numbers began to move up in Ohio, to the point where by the last week of October, he led by two points. Romney advisers described a kind of schizophrenia, however, as they weighed the fact that the vast preponderance of the public polls had Obama ahead of Romney.
But then, Romney, with strong encouragement from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, went on offense in Ohio regarding the auto bailout of 2008 and 2009. It had been one of Romney's biggest weaknesses. And on the last Friday night in October, in Defiance, Ohio, Portman began hitting back at Obama at a massive rally on a high school football field. Portman wrote a detailed op-ed in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that appeared the next day.
Romney did not go into a detailed argument about the auto bailout that night. But he did cite a Bloomberg news report that had run the previous Monday. The piece said that Chrysler "plans to return Jeep output to China and may eventually make all of its models in that country." Romney said that night that Chrysler was "thinking of moving all production to China."
But the Bloomberg article also stated that Chrysler would be "adding Jeep production sites rather than shifting output from North America to China." Romney was knocked for his comment, and did not mention it again on the campaign trail.
Yet that same weekend, the Romney campaign began running a TV ad in Ohio that cited the Bloomberg article, and said that Chrysler was "going to build Jeeps in China." It was technically accurate, but Jeep workers in the state got the impression that their jobs might be in danger, despite assurances from Chrysler that the company was not cutting jobs in the state. Democrats hammered Romney for the ad, Obama cut his own spot calling Romney "cynical," and perhaps most importantly, local newspapers and TV stations in the state hammered Romney for misleading auto workers.
Romney's internals began to slip backwards in the days before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. The massive storm elevated the president and put him on a national stage with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a prominent and outspoken Republican. Christie praised the president with such vigor that speculation among some Republicans is already rampant that while the governor's reelection prospects a year from now might have improved, any thought of running for president as a Republican might be gone.
By the end of the last week before the election, Romney's own numbers had him trailing Obama. And even as the campaign's data showed things tightening up in a number of states on the last weekend, Ohio began to slip further away.
Multiple sources told HuffPost that Portman wanted the campaign to run a second Jeep ad on the final weekend, but that the bulk of Romney's advisers were opposed. The spot was not described in a way that made it sound like one that would have doubled down on the points made in the first ad.
One senior Romney adviser said there was "no question" that the Jeep ad hurt Romney in Ohio.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said on Twitter Tuesday night that of the 59 percent of Ohio voters who supported the auto bailouts, 75 percent voted for Obama, compared with 24 percent for Romney.
But Romney's losses in Virginia and Colorado pointed beyond state-specific dynamics, and led to one other final conclusion for why the Republicans lost their chance at unseating Obama. The Obama campaign's ground game, and its massive grassroots organization, was as good as advertised.
Romney and the Republicans spoke in the weeks leading up to the election of an unseen, unmeasured wave -- that would overturn public polls and sweep Romney to victory. They did not say this organic movement would be based largely on a deep opposition across the country to Obama more so than on support for Romney, but this was understood.
Yet this wave did not materialize. And the Obama machine turned out its supporters with what appeared to be a shock and awe display of efficiency and precision.
Romney aides put on brave faces after their candidate conceded. But earlier in the night, Romney's youngest son, Craig, had inadvertently opened a window on what his mother, his family, and his father's supporters were feeling. He told the election party crowd here what his mother Ann Romney's reaction had been to the 2008 election, when Romney dropped out of the Republican primary.
"She was so devastated that she actually grabbed a friend of ours who had a video camera and she said, 'Get this on tape. I don't ever want to forget what I'm feeling right now,'" Craig Romney said. "And she told him, 'We're never doing this again.'"
Romney's loss will open up a fierce debate inside the Republican Party over where to go next. The conservative wing will argue that Romney lost because he was not bold enough in communicating the conservative vision and philosophy of governance. But the nation's demographics are shifting away from the party, as younger voters and minorities go for Democrats in increasing numbers. A major question facing the party is whether it can begin to reach out to these groups, and what impact any such move to broaden the party has on core ideologies.