DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics:
This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times.
“Why is someone who is so good at making money so bad at talking about it?
Mitt Romney is not the first presidential candidate who’s had trouble communicating with working-class voters: John Kerry famously enjoyed wind-surfing, and George Bush blamed a poor showing in a straw poll on the fact that many of his supporters were “at their daughter’s coming out party.”
Veritable battalions of Kennedys and Roosevelts have dealt with the economic and cultural gaps between themselves and the voters over the years without much difficulty. Not so Barack Obama, whose attempt to commiserate with Iowa farmers in 2007 about crop prices by mentioning the cost of arugula at Whole Foods fell flat.
Romney’s reference last week to the fact that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually” is not grounds in itself for a voter to oppose his candidacy. Neither was the $10,000 bet he offered to Rick Perry during a debate in December or the time he told a group of the unemployed in Florida that he was “also unemployed.”
But his penchant for awkward references to his own wealth has underscored the suspicion that many voters have about his ability to understand their economic problems. His opponents in both parties are gleefully highlighting these moments as a way to drive a wedge between Romney and the working class voters who have become an increasingly important part of the Republican Party base.
The current economic circumstances have undoubtedly exacerbated the problem for Romney. Had Obama initially sought the presidency during a primary season dominated by concerns about the domestic economy rather than war in Iraq, his explanation that small town voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” might have created an opportunity for Hillary Clinton or even the populist message of John Edwards.
But Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war gave him a political firewall that protected him throughout that primary campaign, while Romney has no such policy safe harbor to safeguard him from an intramural backlash
The presidential aspirant can’t seem to stop reminding voters of his considerable wealth.
Romney and Obama share a lack of natural affinity for this key group of swing voters, but it is Romney who needs to figure out some way of addressing this shortcoming if he wants to make it to the White House. It’s Romney’s misfortune that the voters’ prioritization of economic issues, his own privileged upbringing and his lack of connection with his party’s base on other core issues put him in a much more precarious position than candidate Obama ever reached.
By the time the 2008 general election rolled around, Obama had bolstered his outreach to these voters by recruiting the blue-collar avatar Joe Biden as his running mate. Should Romney win the Republican nomination this year, his advisers will almost certainly be tempted by the working-class credentials that a proletarian like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Florida Senator Marco Rubio would bring to the ticket.
Of more immediate concern to Team Romney should be how their candidate can overcome his habit of economic tone-deafness before Rick Santorum steals away enough working-class and culturally conservative voters to throw the Republican primary into complete and utter turmoil.
The curious thing about Romney’s verbal missteps is how limited they are to this very specific area of public policy. He is usually quite articulate when talking about foreign affairs and national security. Despite his complicated history on social and cultural matters like health care and abortion, his explanations are usually both coherent and comprehensible, even to those who oppose his positions. It’s only when he begins talking about economic issues – his biographical strength – that he seems to get clumsy.”
Dan Schnur is director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.