That cannot be done by appealing to facts and figures about the economy. If that would work, it would already be working. Instead, the governor needs to show average voters that he intuitively understands their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares. He needs to convince them that when the chips are down, he’ll have their back.
To do that, he must do what he has been loath to do throughout the five years he’s been openly running for president. Mitt Romney must show Americans what’s in his heart.
I’m not talking about having people stand up and say why he’s a generous fellow, a solid citizen, and a loving father. That might have sufficed five months ago, when Americans were just getting to know him. But now Americans will need to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what motivates the man who is asking for their trust in the coming difficult years ahead.
It comes down to two related but distinct questions. Is Mitt Romney running for president because he wants to lead Americans? Or is Mitt Romney running for president because he wants Americans to follow him?
If he is running because he wants to lead us, he needs to show us he understands and respects us. He needs to get out of his comfort zone, to have unscripted events with average, non-screened Americans so that he can listen to their concerns and respond. He needs to spend less time spouting facts and more time telling stories. He needs to engage our hearts as well as our heads.
This won’t work if it’s not in his heart. A campaign always reflects the candidate, and if it’s not in his heart, it will come across as contrived and inauthentic if he tries to bare his soul. If he really doesn’t believe that a fireman or a truck driver is doing something of equal dignity to what a successful businessman does, no photo op or staged event can overcome that empathy gap. Any attempt to do so will simply produce a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment, a picture that tells a thousand words of your opponent’s writing.
If it is in his heart, though, it can work. And the Romney campaign can look to the example of Richard Nixon, with whom he has some similarities, to see how to do it.
When Nixon ran in 1968, he and his advisers (including a young Roger Ailes) knew they had to humanize their candidate. They needed to show that he could relate to average people and poke fun at himself, and yet had the experience and knowledge that would let him make decisions in Americans’ interests. In short, they needed to convince Americans that he wanted to lead them, and that he was capable of doing so.
They devised a number of ways to do this. One was to place Vice President Nixon on the No. 1 TV show in America, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which despite its popularity was firmly a part of the counterculture. One of the show’s running gags was to have an actress, Judy Carne, tricked into saying “sock it to me,” after which she would be doused with water. In an unannounced September appearance, Nixon showed up to utter the magic line, automatically connecting with millions of viewers in a self-deprecating way. Humphrey refused to make a similar appearance, believing it undignified, a decision he subsequently thought might have cost him the election.