The Anatomy of a ‘Mitt Romney 2016’ Story

Will Mitt run again? Absolutely not, but let's read about it anyway!

Mitt Romney 'slow jams the news' on Jimmy Fallon

Mitt Romney ‘slow jams the news’ on Jimmy Fallon

Will, Mitt Romney run for president in 2016???

In Mitt Romney’s words, “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.” That sounds like a no. But it doesn’t stop news organizations from putting the question in a headline before revealing the answer. And it doesn’t stop people like you and I, people who should know better, from clicking on it with incredulous wonder and reading the whole thing.

These are textbook examples of a good clickbait political story. So let’s break them down. These articles needs two things: an interesting narrative, and the element of surprise. Stories suggesting Mitt Romney might do well to consider his third run for the White House, even having lost in 2012, certainly contain the latter. It’s a ludicrous idea.

Now you have to weave an implausible yet not impossible narrative pegged to at least a few recent news stories so as not to anger your audience for wasting their time. The Mitt stories go like this: Chris Christie’s recent revenge plot revelations aren’t doing his presidential prospects many favors, so down goes the leading contender. Plus, Mitt Romney is the star of a new documentary that does what many deemed impossible. It makes him seem less like a cylon, and instead, appear as his campaign long insisted he should: human and presidential. Plus he appeared on Jimmy Fallon. Someone warm up Marine One.

Finally, you get a couple political operatives to say things that suggest it’s not a 0 percent possibility (even though it is.) There are 800,000,000 people in America who call themselves “party insiders,” and of that, there are about 799,999,999 willing to give you a blind quote about Mitt Romney. (The other one is Mitt Romney.) They say things like,  “A year ago I would have laughed at that question. Today I’m not laughing,” in the Boston Herald. Or  “I think we need Mitt back,” in Buzzfeed.

As a journalist, there is a varying amount of knowingness or sense of shame you can bring to this kind of story. On one end is the aforementioned Herald, which doesn’t telegraph any hint that it knows exactly what it is doing. “It might make sense for Mitt Romney to run for president in 2016!” they seem to say with total earnestness.

There’s the moderate level of shame, in which the story at least goes so far as to shoot down the idea as idle chatter in a year when presidential news is harder to come by. (Hey, we can only talk about Elizabeth Warren so much.) “We get swept up in these moments,” Obama advisor David Plouffe tells a Bloomberg News roundtable. “Two months from now, I don’t think anyone will be talking about Mitt Romney.” 

And then there’s the complete level of shame, in which you do everything that the previous articles are doing, but you say it sarcastically so your audience knows you just need something to fill your column inches that week, but you don’t actually buy into this stuff. Enter: Maureen Dowd, “There’s always 2016,” she sneers at Mitt, meaning the exact opposite. (Note, this very story you’re reading also likely falls into the final category.)

She has a point. Setting aside what kind of president he would be, Mitt Romney was, in many moments, a very bad candidate. The film cannot erase the memory of these flaws entirely. He also seems extremely convincing and sincere when he describes how arduous a campaign is, both for him and his family. After saying “no,” as many times as a reporter is willing to write down, he adds, “People are always gracious and say, ‘Oh, you should run again.’ I’m not running again … I think that Chris Christie and Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and the list goes on, have a much better chance of doing that, and so I will support one of them as they become the nominee.” Just because you remove Chris Christie from that list (and there’s no guarantee that this scandal has) doesn’t leave only one man standing. There are plenty of other options not named Willard Mitt Romney. But we all knew that when we clicked on those stories. It didn’t make it less fun to read and scoff at them anyway.