The New York Times surveys likely Republican caucus-goers, and hits upon a number that should be very worrisome to the Romney camp. When asked “which candidate most understands the needs and problems of people like you,” Newt Gingrich, of all people, actually fares the best, with 24 percent of those surveyed suggesting that the profoundly idiosyncratic multimillionaire policy entrepreneur, Amazon.com reviewer, Rockefeller Republican, author of counterfactual civil war novels, and Toffler enthusiast understands the needs and problems of likely Republican caucus-goers. Mitt Romney, a centimillionaire private equity veteran and son of a popular liberal Republican governor and automobile executive, has convinced only 13 percent of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers that he understands the needs and problems of people like them, lower than the 16 percent who say the same for Ron Paul, obstetrician and Rothbardian libertarian. Jon Huntsman, incredibly, garners only 1 percent on this score, which is to say that only one-thirteenth the number of people who believe that one privileged LDS presidential candidate with an Ivy League education believe that the other understands the needs and problems of voters like them. Note: I should specify that the question was which candidate “most” understands. Still, the numbers are pretty grim. (Thanks to Nate Silver for the heads up.)
So why do these numbers matter for Mitt Romney? Iowa’s Republican electorate is older and whiter than the national electorate, and presumably somewhat less economically anxious. The kind of positional competition that causes such anxiety for middle and upper-middle-income households in dense coastal metropolitan regions is not as pressing in Iowa, a relatively egalitarian and homogeneous state that has relatively strong public institutions. And of course we’re only talking about Republicans. If only 13 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers believe that Mitt Romney “most understands the needs and problems of people like you,” what are his numbers among (a) the somewhat less-engaged unlikely Iowa Republican caucus-goers; (b) likely Iowa voters as a whole; (c) and likely voters across the United States?
After the 2008 presidential election, Ramesh Ponnuru noted the importance of the “understanding” question in a still-relevant New York Times op-ed:
Republicans, as the party in the White House for the last eight years, were bound to take most of the blame for the financial crisis. But Mr. McCain would have been better prepared for it if middle-class voters already trusted him to look out for them. By the end of the campaign, 60 percent of voters did not think that he was “in touch with people like them” — and 79 percent of them voted against him. They thought other Republicans were out of touch, too. To recover, the party will have to prove them wrong, not just return to the conservative program of yesteryear. [Emphasis added]
This reminds me of how Democrats working for the president’s reelection occasionally claim that Jon Huntsman is the candidate they fear most, or more recently that Newt Gingrich seems like a lovable uncle. These amusing mind games mask the central importance of being “in touch with people” like America’s voters.
The Romney campaign has failed to make their candidate seem accessible, warm, and in touch with the experience of a broad cross-section of middle-class Americans. When have we ever heard Romney talk about his parents and how his father’s work inspired him to contribute to his community, both in the LDS Church and as a participant in civic life and eventually as a political candidate? George Romney was raised in dire poverty. How did that shape his as a man and as a father, and what lessons did it leave Mitt with as he formed his own family? Having achieved financial success at a young age, how did he keep his children humble and was it hard for him to take time away from running a large business enterprise to devote himself to his religious and civic commitments?
How is it that Republican primary voters don’t know the answer to any of these questions? Barack Obama’s life story was an essential part of his brand, and essential to connecting him to wide swathes of the Democratic primary electorate, many of which could relate to different pieces of his life — the free-spirit mother, the doting and hard-working grandparents, the absent father, and so on. Romney’s life story is never going to be as mythic, but it has its own complications and its own (potential) grandeur that could connect him with voters. Romney is a square. That could actually be an asset for him.
A similar logic applies to Jon Huntsman, who makes such an effort to seem witty and knowing that he has neglected projecting his fundamental normality. To be sure, Huntsman has projected kindness and gentleness of spirit, but that’s very “beta male,” as Ross has put, and not very revealing of his story.