ENGLEWOOD, CO — It may just have been the glare of the stage lights or an optical illusion created by the cameras, but when Mitt Romney stepped out in front of a Colorado amphitheater packed with 17,000 roaring fans Saturday night, his eyes appeared to fill with tears.
"We're almost there!" Romney told the crowd, apparently caught up in their enthusiasm. "One final push, it's gonna get us there!"
It wasn't an uncommon line, exactly. What made it noteworthy was how much he seemed to believe it.
Against all odds, Romney is feeling like a winner.
Even as polls show him trailing, albeit narrowly, in most battleground states, Romney has seen the final chapter of his 20-year quest for the presidency take on a cinematic quality. He's speaking, for the first time, to huge, zealous crowds. His rhetoric has gotten loftier, and his voice often takes on the tone of a true believer as he declares that his campaign “has become a movement.”
For a studied number cruncher who has suddenly become a partisan hero, Romney is experiencing, in the last days of the race, a tension between data and destiny — perhaps more palpably than other candidates who have been in his position.
Indeed, behind the made-for-cable campaign chest-thumping, aides concede that they will only win this race if the electoral composition they're forecasting — lower youth turnout than in 2008 and fewer Latino voters than public pollsters expect — ends up being right.
"It comes down to whose model is right," said one adviser. "If theirs is right, they win. If ours is, we'll win."
And the candidate — who built a successful private equity firm famous for emphasizing research and data over personal instinct — is under no delusions that victory on Tuesday is guaranteed. He is "intimately familiar" with the electoral math, according to one adviser, and he has spent many hours this year poring over the campaign's numbers.
And yet, even the most sober statistical analysis can be drowned out by the din of 20,000 people chanting "U-S-A!" And the math-minded Republican nominee this year is no exception, aides suggest.
"I've noticed that for Governor Romney and Mrs. Romney, there's sort of an emotional quotient to their reaction and the outpouring of support that they get from so many people," said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser who travels with the candidate.
It was late Sunday night when Madden spoke to BuzzFeed, and Romney had just completed a rally in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The event was a late addition to the candidate's schedule, and his chances in the state were universally acknowledged to be a long shot. Most polls in the state showed him trailing by several points.
But when Romney arrived on stage — with the Rocky soundtrack blaring through huge speakers — he found a sprawling mass of supporters waiting eagerly to receive him. They were wearing coats and earmuffs to shield them from the sub-40-degree wind chill, and many had been there all day, waiting patiently even as his plane was delayed an extra hour and a half.
"You look at tonight, in Pennsylvania; 25,000, 30,000 people braving some cold weather and waiting three or four hours just to show their support," Madden marveled. "I think that hits really home for them."
It's common, of course, for presidential campaigns to feed off surface-level signs of momentum in the waning days of a race. Partisan voters are more engaged, politics saturates the mainstream media, and rallies become highly produced affairs featuring celebrity athletes and rock stars that draw tens of thousands of locals — regardless of what the polls show.
In 2004, John Kerry attracted 80,000 supporters to a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, with the promise of a Bruce Springsteen performance. And in an episode a bit more reminiscent of the current state of play than the Romney campaign would like to admit, John McCain spent the weekend before election day in 2008 drawing huge crowds in a last-ditch effort to win Pennsylvania.
"I want to repeat to you one more time, my friends — we're going to win, and we're going to bring real change to Washington!" McCain said at a rally in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.
He lost the state by 11 points.
But this tension between reality and perception is particularly salient in 2012, a year when insiders have been consumed by a debate that pits scientific polling models against gut-level punditry and shoe-leather reporting that gives more weight to political intangibles. In one corner, New York Times blogger Nate Silver says the polls point to almost certain defeat for Romney. In the other, pundits are calling the race a "jump ball" and saying "anything could happen."
And in the midst of it all, Romney is surely juggling optimism and realism as he's greeted across the country like a savior.
In Des Moines, thousands of Iowans crammed into a cavernous airport hangar — is there any other kind? — to hear Romney speak early Sunday morning. Many had skipped church for the event, expressing a deep-seated belief that the nation's future hinged on the man standing before them. Romney indulged their religious fervor by repeating a new, almost Biblical stump speech line.
"Walk with me!" he urged. "Let's walk together."
Thirteen hours later, Romney deplaned in Newport News, Virginia, where yet another hangar full of supporters awaited him. It was cold and late, and he was running well behind schedule, but the crowd didn't seem to mind. As he bounded down the airplane steps, thousands of people chanted "Two more days! Two more days!" pumping their fists and waving their flags in unison.
Romney tilted his head earnestly as he looked over the crowd, placing his right hand over his heart and waving gratefully with his left. It's a signature move he's introduced over the last month. It often looks practiced; this time it didn't.
"He's feeding off the energy of the crowd," Madden remarked, looking on from the back of the hangar.
Romney is much better positioned than McCain was at this point in 2008. Most state polls are within the margin of error, and Republicans have a distinct edge in enthusiasm this year. Romney could well score an upset on Tuesday — but it would be an upset.
And while Romney is clearly aware of this fact, there's another force — one that, yes, transcends the polls — keeping him going.
On one of his recent swings through Ohio, Romney sat on the campaign bus discussing the homestretch schedule with sleepy staffers.
"This is exciting," the candidate exclaimed at one point. "Isn't this exciting?"
"To a lot of us who are exhausted just because we have long days like this, you know, we feed off his energy," Madden said. "Right now, I think he's just in a really great place and he's enjoying this."