Will Mitt Romney follow candidates who failed to connect (and failed to win)?
By Michael Leahy,
Last month, Rudolph Giuliani was lavishly complimenting the background and intellect of Mitt Romney, against whom he ran for president in 2008. “Governor Romney has almost a perfect record for a person to be running right now: experience in government . . . understands the economy,” Giuliani said of the Republican presidential front-runner during a CNN interview.
Giuliani’s praise, complete with a flattering suggestion about his old rival’s oft-touted business acumen, neatly echoed the Romney campaign’s talking points. Only Giuliani made a few more observations that night, a prelude to signaling that he thought Newt Gingrich would be the stronger candidate.
“But there is something missing,” Giuliani said of Romney’s social and political skills, adding, “There’s some kind of personal connection that doesn’t get made that the other candidates probably do a better job at.”
Events this week revealed just how dangerous that apparent disconnect could be to Romney’s bid for the presidency.
Before a New Hampshire audience, Romney offhandedly declared, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” in the midst of explaining how he would spurn unsatisfactory health-care insurance providers. The comment was instantly touted by critics as a sign of Romney’s cold character.
This is what often happens when a candidate is a mystery: Others paint his portrait for him. Over the years, that reality has bedeviled enigmatic White House losers such as Michael Dukakis and Thomas Dewey, whose names will forever be synonymous with bungled campaigns. Now, amid a struggling economy, Romney’s words have left him appearing tone-deaf, analysts said. Gingrich had bitingly compared him to the defeated Dukakis, another former Massachusetts governor.
Talk of Romney’s perceived stiffness on the campaign trail — longtime fodder for the blogosphere and analysts on both sides of the political divide — has triggered responses from both his campaign and wife about his personality. As television cameras recently followed her on a campaign stop, Ann Romney said of her husband that “people will discover that he’s got a great sense of humor” and that he is very “approachable.”
But concerns about his ability to connect are casually noted by Republican insiders, even among some who once worked for him.
“This is Romney: He knows what is wrong with a car engine, and he knows how to rebuild that engine — but he doesn’t acknowledge the person driving the car,” said Doug Gross, who served as the Romney campaign’s Iowa state chairman in 2008 but is uncommitted in the 2012 race.
Gross sees the challenge growing for Romney as voters face the elemental question of whether they know him.
“He’s not able to warm a room immediately or make an audience feel like he is speaking to them,” Gross said. “You’d have to put a new card in him for that to happen. He’s articulate; he looks great. But can he connect in a way this time that moves voters?”
No skill counts for more in politics than the ineffable ability to reach across a cold space — or through a television screen — and strike a bond with complete strangers.
“Some of the best predictors of an election [outcome] are how much a candidate makes voters feel proud and hopeful,” said Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science, psychology and communication at Stanford University. He added, “If a candidate fails to connect with voters, if he fails to establish a sense of emotional resonance, it’s certainly harder for him.”
Yet even after a full year of campaigning under America’s microscope, some candidates have left the national stage as blank slates. The 1988 Democratic nominee, Dukakis. The 1948 Republican nominee, Dewey. The 1960 loser, Richard Nixon, who in time would be revealed as at his most intimate when speaking alone into his Dictaphone. And although Nixon eventually captured the presidency in spite of his remoteness, history tells us that such a dreamer’s challenge is generally tougher.
The American electorate does not bow to candidates; it is not auditioning a prospective monarch. It tends to favor aspirants who, in the interest of looking like a deserving chief commoner, let voters glimpse at least a few of their rough edges — or at least believe they have.
Romney’s rhetoric suggests he understands this strain in the American character that resents remote and imperial chief executives — and haughty candidates. Recently, he sought to portray President Obama as regally aloof. Campaigning in Iowa while the president was on vacation in Hawaii, Romney informed his audience that Obama was playing golf and ridiculed him for suggesting the economy could have been in more dire straits without the administration’s measures.
“The other day, President Obama said, ‘You know, it could be worse,’ ” Romney told a crowd in the rain and drew a comparison to an executed French royal. “Sounds like Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat cake.’ ”
But Romney has his own perceptions to battle, including his detractors’ statements that he’s hard to tie down on key policy questions and even harder to get to know. And so people studying him wonder whether they are looking at a winner or just another also-ran whose seeming inability to connect with voters will prove his undoing.
Is he, in short, the next president or — as Gingrich would have it — another Dukakis?
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Over the years, the dangers for candidates perceived as aloof or impenetrable have driven several campaigns to attempt personality makeovers. By the summer of 1988, with the Reagan administration on its way out and Dukakis enjoying a substantial lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush, alarmed advisers to the Democrat’s campaign recognized that a troubling narrative was forming about their candidate. Critics and pundits had dubbed him Zorba the Clerk.
“He was viewed by people and reporters especially as a passionless candidate — cold and detached,” said Dayton Duncan, the Dukakis campaign’s national press secretary. “I didn’t find him cold and detached. But caricatures and stereotypes usually have something they hang on — some nugget of truth.”
The warning flags could be seen much earlier. The candidate never revealed much about himself, but he dispensed plenty of advice for others. In 1987, campaigning in Iowa in the lead up to the important presidential caucuses there, Dukakis confidently offered advice to farmers struggling to emerge from the region’s agricultural crisis of the early 1980s.
They should try growing Belgian endive, Dukakis said at a forum with the farmers, who responded with puzzled looks.
One of Dukakis’s worried campaign supporters was an ambitious college Democrat named Jason Chaffetz, whose father had once been married to Dukakis’s wife, Kitty, and who knew the candidate well enough to refer affectionately to him as “Michael.” Hearing of Dukakis’s Belgian endive remark, the greenhorn Chaffetz, who nowadays is a second-term Republican congressman from Utah, instantly knew the Massachusetts candidate had erred badly in tone, lecturing Iowan farmers whose lives he scarcely knew.
“Holy moly,” Chaffetz remembers thinking.
But he knew the candidate’s intentions were right. “Michael was struggling to connect,” he said.
Chitchatting didn’t come naturally to Dukakis, with farmers or anyone else. Dukakis disdained emotion, preferring to problem-solve in a manner that calls to mind the Romney approach. “Dukakis was saying essentially: I’m a good manager,” Duncan remembered. But by then, the narrative of the candidate’s remoteness had become encrusted, according to Duncan.
“When you have that kind of problem,” Duncan said, “you say to a candidate: ‘You need to do more of this sort of thing and that sort of thing, because there is this feeling out there among voters that we need to deal with.’ You say to the candidate, ‘Hey, you can tell more jokes. You can get mad, even.’ ”
The defining moment of the Dukakis campaign came during the opening minutes of a debate against Bush, after perhaps the most memorable question in presidential debating history.
CNN’s Bernard Shaw posed a hypothetical to Dukakis, a staunch opponent of the death penalty: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
In the instant before Dukakis answered, his advisers yearned for him to respond with raw emotion, perhaps even take offense. But what followed was a reminder of how difficult it is to transform a dispassionate candidate.
“No, I don’t, Bernard,” he said. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent.”
In that second, Dukakis had confirmed America’s impression of him as a not-so-regular guy. “Everybody knew it wasn’t a great answer,” Duncan said. “Dukakis later said, ‘I didn’t answer that question very well, did I?’
“For a few minutes, the line was that Kitty had switched to undecided.”
To Duncan, part of what made the closing act so sad is that, at one point, the race had felt so winnable. Conservative Republicans had never been feverish in their support for Bush, whom many viewed as a closet elitist lacking fervor for their causes, despite his eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
But Dukakis never could capitalize. A survey done in 1988 by the American National Election Studies — a joint venture between the University of Michigan and Stanford University that studies presidential elections — asked respondents to declare whether Bush and Dukakis had made them feel hopeful and proud. Although Bush’s numbers were relatively low, well under 50 percent, it hadn’t mattered: Dukakis’s numbers were essentially as disappointing.
Stanford’s Krosnick, who is a co-principal investigator of ANES — a nonpartisan group that receives funding from the National Science Foundation — said Dukakis’s loss proved that voters do not respond well to candidates who fail to connect emotionally with them.
“Dukakis was not an emotion activator,” Krosnick said, adding, “He didn’t connect with enough voters.”
Dukakis squandered his chance.
Now, Krosnick is contemplating 2012, raising possible scenarios while carefully avoiding judgments.
“In some ways, Romney resembles Dukakis, in his cerebral approach,” Krosnick said. “But it’s way too early for Americans to show some kind of emotional responsiveness either to him or his policies.”
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No presidential campaign has been mocked more than the 1948 misadventure of Dewey, a New York governor who enjoyed a commanding lead in misguided polls over Democratic nominee Harry S. Truman. Four years earlier, a sometimes-biting Dewey had lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but this was a new Dewey on display, said admirers and analysts. A less frosty Dewey. A happy Dewey.
The candidate played it safe with a campaign praised at the time for its low-key respectability. “Dewey’s was the kind of campaign we always claim we desire in politics: no cheap shots, no terrible attacks, no unnecessary emphasis on personality,” said historian Richard Norton Smith, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Dewey.
According to Smith, Dewey could see his lead dwindling in the campaign’s final days. Yet his cautious streak left him unwilling or unable to respond. “Never talk when you’re ahead,” Dewey told an aide. He was the president-in-waiting whom America never really knew.
In any case, a remote candidate gets defined whether he likes it or not, a reality grasped by Romney’s most devoted supporters, who want to preempt any problems.
During a private conference call last month with a bloc of his congressional supporters, Romney listened as several Republican House members urged him to open up and let Americans better understand his joys and travails. One supporter said he had been moved by a television interview in which Romney touched on the health struggles of his wife.
Chaffetz, a devoted Romney supporter who organized the call, said he believes that Romney has come a considerable way during recent interviews in revealing himself to voters. Chaffetz paused, having thought of a contrast between Romney and the former presidential candidate whom he had long ago helped: “When Governor Romney is talking of his family instead of something like Belgian endive, he’s doing a much better job.”
Meanwhile, Krosnick, who has been pondering the ANES numbers from the 2008 election, said that at least one number will change this time: the 60 percent of respondents who said that Obama made them feel “hopeful,” a number that equaled Reagan’s towering appeal in 1984. With the economy ailing, Obama’s hope numbers will doubtless fall, Krosnick said.
“It’s an uphill struggle for Obama there,” he said, adding that the numbers present an opportunity for a Republican nominee. “If it’s Romney, a question is whether Romney becomes another Dukakis, with low numbers of his own. Or does Romney create numbers of higher hope and optimism? If he does, it could work out well for him.”
A congressional supporter of Romney says his colleagues have made peace with the notion that Romney might be limited in his ability to thrill voters. “During our conference call, Mitt was open to us about who he is,” he said. “He said to us, ‘I know I could be more sensational in my comments to the media, but that is not who I am. But I am well-vetted. I’m not going to embarrass you.’ That message counts for a lot with us. President Obama will unite a lot of people for Mitt. We just need to win. . . . If Mitt can make some people feel closer to him, that’s even better.”
The long history of presidential politics is filled with reconstituted candidates. The new Dewey. The new Nixon. A more affable Dukakis.
As for Romney, “he’s a better candidate this time,” but he remains a work in progress, Duncan said.
And as Romney’s advisers work with him, tweaking his speeches and one-liners, trying to strengthen that connection with voters, they will learn that aspiring leaders have limits like the mortals they yearn to lead.
“You can talk all you want about changing a candidate, but eventually the candidate will go back to his default position — he is who he is,” said Duncan, who along the way with Dukakis learned the most humbling truth of all, one that Romney likely has already discovered. “The attention of a presidential campaign is so glaring, so unrelenting for a candidate. Those parts of you that make you who you are eventually get exposed.”