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'You replay what you could have done': Life after election loss

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech during his election night rally in Boston. Those who have been through defeat advise getting rest and spending time with family.


By Vidya Rao, TODAY staff

After two years as a star on the world stage with dogged confidence that he would win, the curtain call on Gov. Mitt Romney’s six-year quest for the presidency is a loss few of us can fathom. Defeat has a deeply personal impact on candidates, who, a scrutinizing public can often forget, are actual people with families and feelings.

Romney didn’t lose by a landslide, but that can provide him little comfort. 

“It’s both easier and harder when it’s close,” said Stanley Renshon, a political psychology professor at CUNY. “There are lots of ways you can adjust the narrative you can say a certain group turned on you, you can blame outside factors. On the other hand, you struggle with having come so close, and you replay what you could have done differently.”

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The kind of people who choose to run for office are out-of-this-world driven, competitive and ambitious, Renshon explained, so losing hits them hard. A friend of Al Gore, who gained weight and grew a beard after losing to George W. Bush in 2000, told the New York Times recently that, “I doubt he’ll ever be totally-every-day-at-peace with losing in 2000.”

George McGovern, the Democratic candidate who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972, was asked in a 2005 interview how long it took him to recover from the disappointment. “You never fully get over it,” he responded. “But I’ve had a good life. I’ve enjoyed myself 90 percent of the time.” The exchange made its way into his obituary last month.

One consequence for candidates, particularly challengers, is the worry that they’ll fade into obscurity. “It’s a tough pill to swallow when the phone just doesn’t ring anymore,” said Renshon.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a man whose name has become synonymous with loss (so much so that some Romney detractors labeled him the Dukakis of this election), after being defeated by a landslide for the presidency in 1988, says he’s since made peace with it, but was long haunted by his campaign missteps. He still asserts that he could have won against George H.W. Bush if he had responded to the famous Willie Horton attack ads that painted him as soft on crime.

Charles Utz / AFP/Getty Images

1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis waves to a cheering audience. While he thinks about mistakes he made, he says he's made peace with being defeated.

“I made a big mistake,” he told TODAY.com. “But ultimately, you can’t dwell on that.

“I didn’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for myself,” Dukakis, now a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said of having to finish out his term as governor during a tough recession. And he stressed the importance of his family’s support.

“My wife was absolutely critical I never could have done it without her,” he said in reference to the campaign and the defeat.

Romney will turn to his family for solace as well.

“Romney’s large, close family is clearly very involved,” said Renshon. “You have a group of friends and family saying that it’s not your fault. That’s a saving grace.”

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When Bill Clinton lost the Arkansas gubernatorial election in 1980, he hit a “period of immense depression and he was disconsolate for months,” said presidential historian William H. Chafe, who studied the couple’s relationship for his book, “Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal.” 

No matter the issues in their marriage, much of his comeback was owed to his wife Hillary, who got him focused and reorganized to campaign and win the position back in 1982 and eventually head to the presidency in 1992.

“Hillary came to the rescue,” said Chafe.”It was the first instance of many that she saved his life. It made him aware of how much she strengthened him and compensated for his weakness.”

In general, said Renshon, relationships can become stronger.

“What happens when people go through this high tension, they bond together it almost reminds me of Stockholm syndrome,” he explained.

Tipper Gore helped her husband through the tough times after defeat, and he went on to focus on environmental issues, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 2007. While the couple survived the storm, they divorced 10 years later.

Spouses can and do serve as a source of strength, but how does defeat affect them?

“I am hiding my head like an ostrich,” wrote Barbara Bush in her 2003 memoir about the “painful” experience of campaigning and losing in 1992. “It hurts too much to see George and the children so lied about.”

That sentiment is a common one, and, can lead family members to feel an odd sense of relief after election day.

“The run is very painful, watching your loved one being mocked, ridiculed and criticized,” said Carl Mumpower, a psychologist and Republican who lost a 2008 bid for Congress. “They’re disappointed for you, but happy for the family. I guarantee you Ann Romney is breathing a sigh of relief — she gets her husband back.”

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Then there are the 24 members of the 112th Congress who lost their seats Tuesday. With no time to lick their wounds, they must go back and finish their lame duck session  in a basement.

Because their offices need to be prepared for new members, they turn in their keys and are moved into a cubicle in a cafeteria, where they’ll serve the remainder of their term.

“Those members leaving only have couple days to get packed up and moved out,” explained Peter Weichlein, CEO of the non-profit U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. “From a psychological perspective, it’s really quite a process they’re going through after the electorate has told them they’re not coming back.”

Weichlein’s organization runs a “Life After Congress” program, connecting members with other former congressmen to help them get through the emotional and logistical transition which, like any job loss, involves establishing healthcare, deciding whether to move their families and finding work.

These candidates now also feel responsible for the fate of their staff, which is often comprised of bright, idealistic young people who were hoping to jump-start their careers.

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When Rep. Connie Morella, a Republican representing a suburban Maryland district, lost her run for her ninth term in Congress in 2004, staffers were at the front of her mind. Many of them, she told TODAY.com, were overwhelmed by the outcome. The following morning, the Washington Post featured a picture of Morella consoling a volunteer in tears. In her thank-you notes, she used a Winston Churchill quote: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Patrick Murray, a congressional candidate who ran in 2010 and again this year against Democrat Jim Moran in Northern Virginia, told TODAY.com that after his first loss, he entered a recovery stage. He had spent months on his feet for hours at a time, eating unhealthy food on the run, with little time to exercise. The week after his loss, he rested. “It was just trying to get some sleep really,” he said. Murray lost this year's bid as well on Tuesday. 

But it's hard to keep a good candidate down. Many dust themselves off and get back to running for office. “I recently talked with someone who lost the congressional primary in September,” recalled Weichlein. “He’s already very excited to come back; that’s how much he loves public service.”

Others feel a sense of relief that the ride is over, and, like Gore, use the time to explore other passions.

“Yes, it’s disappointing, but it’s like a bad tooth being pulled out. There’s a hole there, but at least you don’t feel the pain anymore,” said Mumpower, who is now a conservative columnist in Asheville, N.C.

Dukakis found his passion in encouraging young people to get involved in public service, and lent his support to the successful campaigns of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.

NBC’s Peter Alexander reported Tuesday night that Romney told him he plans to “return to a very special life surrounded by loved ones,” and that’s exactly what Dukakis says he should do.

“Try to decompress, spend lots of time with family and think about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life after taking a few months to figure it out,” he said. “Romney is relatively young and bright; he should get involved in things he cares about.

“We all know it’s very competitive,” Dukakis said. “You know going into it that only one can win, and you hope you’re not the one to lose. After all that, just being home with my family at night was pleasant. And now, I’m supremely happy with what I do.”

Eun Kyung Kim contributed to this report.

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