Romney defiantly took issue with the charge that he had succeeded because he had come from wealth, declaring, "I had inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work." The audience of well-to-do donors applauded. He described his trip to China to emphasize a related point: "Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America."
This was interesting stuff: an unguarded Romney talking in an intimate setting with folks who shared the privileges of wealth. But it did not seem explosive.
When the candidate was asked how "the Palestinian problem could be solved," he provided a long answer indicating that he did not believe a two-state solution was feasible. Peace was "almost unthinkable," and he said that were he elected he would merely aim to "kick the ball down the field" (rather than actively pursue the peace process). Given that he had publicly proclaimed his support for the two-state solution, this was news—but mostly for the foreign–policy crowd.
I asked the source point blank if he was connected to any campaign or partisan outfit. He assured me he was not.
I kept watching as the conversation unfolded along predictable lines. Then one of the donors asked, "For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you.' How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?"
Romney answered without hesitation:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it—that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.
I was stunned. With conviction and passion, Romney had described the election as a face-off between the strivers (people like himself and the other 1-percenters in the room) and the parasitic hordes who sought to live off the hard work of the accomplished. He acknowledged that he was writing off the former.
There was more on the video—Romney discussing his political strategy, saying the campaign was using his wife Ann "sparingly right now, so people don't get tired of her," and making cracks about the hosts of The View—but I knew the 47-percent remarks would be the story. I couldn't recall any major presidential candidate getting caught speaking in such contemptuous terms of his fellow citizens.
I studied the video closely to identify where and when the fundraiser had occurred. There were multiple tells, with Romney referring to other things he and his wife Anne had done that day. I found reports that Romney on May 17 had attended a $50,000-a-plate dinner at the Boca Raton, Florida, home of Marc Leder, a controversial private equity manager who had been inspired to enter the field after a visit to Bain Capital. (The previous year Leder had been in the news for holding a wild sex party at his Bridgehampton estate.)
Throughout the day, I discussed the terms of the video's release with A.O. I promised that the faces of everyone other than Romney would be blurred, and that I would not identify the precise fundraiser. I asked point blank if he was connected to any campaign or partisan outfit. He assured me he was not.
My colleagues and I also reviewed the video closely to see if we could discern any indications of editing. We spotted no signs.
"You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser... has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president."
The file had come in two parts. A.O. explained that the recording device had timed out—or been jostled and turned off—at one point, and that he had restarted it. He estimated that one to two minutes, possibly less had been lost.
My colleagues at Mother Jones and I started to think about the best time to unveil the video. Our lawyers had to be consulted; that would take time. Monday was the Jewish New Year. We aimed for Tuesday, September 18, as the release date. But I told my staff that we should get it ready as soon as we responsibly could, just in case.
I began writing two articles: one focused on the 47-percent remarks and other comments Romney had made about the campaign, another featuring his statements on the Middle East and other foreign policy topics.
On the evening of September 15, I was at a party, and A.O. called. The site Political Wire had reposted the China clip, and it had gotten some buzz. Ben LaBolt, the press secretary of the Obama campaign, had tweeted about it. And, A.O. said, the Huffington Post was pressing him for the full video. He assured me there was nothing to worry about.
Okay, I thought, this is all a matter of trust. A.O. trusts me; I trust A.O. Hold on tight.
On the afternoon of September 17, I was driving back from rural Virginia, where my family had gone to mark the death of a close friend, when I saw an email from Ryan Grim of Huffington Post: "you got the full video from the guy at the Romney fundraiser?"
Shit, I thought.
I didn't respond, and within an hour, Huffington Post rushed out an article linking to several of the short clips A.O. had previously posted on YouTube and elsewhere (including a partial audio clip of the 47-percent comment). Like others before them, HuffPo had not authenticated the clips, on which no clear video could be seen. But they reported that the source had given the full video to me.
I conferred with my colleagues and within minutes we launched our story and embedded excerpts of the video, with Romney clearly visible as he spoke.
It was an immediate sensation. Reporters besieged me with phone calls and emails. News outlets wanted more information about the video. Tweets were flying. The story exploded on Facebook.
NBC News and ABC News scrambled to show it on their nightly news shows. Both "David Corn" and the hashtag "#47Percent" were top trends on Twitter. Josh Barro, a conservative writing for Bloomberg View, wrote (perhaps prematurely), "You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser, released today by David Corn at Mother Jones, has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president."
A top Obama adviser sent me a one-word email: "Wow."
The Romney campaign replied quickly, releasing a statement that did not directly respond to what the candidate had said in the video: "Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy."
With the story burning red hot, A.O. granted me permission to remove the blurring from the video clips, to report the time, place, and host of the fundraiser, and to release the whole video file. On Maddow's show, I revealed that Romney had made the 47-percent remark at Leder's opulent home in Boca Raton in May. Soon afterward, the Romney campaign interrupted another fundraiser to hastily hold a press conference in Costa Mesa, California. The candidate looked flustered. He offered up talking points: "The president believes in what I've described as a government-centered society where government plays a larger and larger role…and I happen to believe instead in a free-enterprise, free-individual society."
We knew what Romney perhaps hadn't yet realized: This story did not require interpretation. It showed Romney in his natural environment, at ease with his own words.
Asked if he was "stepping away" from the fundraiser remarks, Romney replied, "Well, um, it's not elegantly stated, let me put it that way. I'm speaking off the cuff in response to a question, and I'm sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did….But it's a message which I'm going to carry and continue to carry."
He added, "I hope the person who has the video would put out the full material." Back at the Mother Jones offices, we had already begun making preparations to do so. We knew what Romney perhaps hadn't yet realized: This story did not require interpretation or analysis. It showed Romney in his natural environment, at ease with his own words.
The following day, Mother Jones posted my second article on the fundraiser video, highlighting Romney's remarks about the Middle East conflict. Here, too, he was telling his funders something quite different than what he said in public.
That afternoon, we posted the entire video file. Readers were free to determine for themselves if the excerpts had accurately reflected Romney's full remarks. Other journalists soon posted more articles zeroing in on specific aspects of the comments.
But it was the candidate's 47-percent riff that would remain a major component of the campaign narrative. Within a week of the video's release, that clip was viewed on YouTube 3.4 million times, racking up more than three times the views of Romney's acceptance speech. Romney campaign was derailed for nearly two weeks. His unscripted moment had become far more important than his script.
I could't have expected any of this when I first set out to scrutinize Romney's campaign narrative. I was simply doing the day-to-day work of reporting, digging into the candidate's private-sector past and following whatever leads could be unearthed. In the end, thanks to A.O.'s initiative, I was able to show millions what average voters are never allowed to witness: a candidate at a ritzy private fundraiser being absolutely candid. As Bob Woodward noted, "It's a big scoop and one of the most important campaign stories of the year…We don't know what's really said or done behind closed doors. Here somebody went behind closed doors." And the real Romney was revealed.