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Substance Trumps Style

A shaky economy means voters may look past Romney’s awkward personality to focus on his conservative fiscal policies.

Mitt in the middle: Poll shows Romney closer to ideological center than Obama.(Charles Dharapak/AP)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
January 17, 2012

If elections were judged on personality alone, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney would have his hands full against President Obama. Indeed, as Romney comes closer to locking up the Republican nomination, political commentators and Democratic strategists alike are beginning to advance the argument that his reserved, bordering-on-stiff personality is painfully similar to that of two recent Democratic presidential losers, and it bodes poorly for his chances against a more likable Obama in 2012.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank argues that Romney is the “political reincarnation” of 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore, displaying “pedantic tendencies” and never seeming comfortable in public. And Democratic operatives are comparing Romney to 2004 nominee John Kerry, believing that just as Republicans neutralized Kerry’s greatest asset (military service in Vietnam) with withering attacks, they can do the same with Romney’s management background by highlighting the most damaging aspects of his record at private equity firm Bain Capital. Not to mention the flip-flops.

Conventional wisdom holds that Kerry lost in 2004 because he was “Swift Boated” by Republican tricksters, and Gore’s aloofness was the main factor blamed for holding him back. In reality, they both lost because they abandoned President Clinton’s centrist coalition and ran well to the left of the electorate’s center. At a time of prosperity, Gore played the class-warfare card, advancing the “people versus the powerful” meme echoed in Obama’s current message. Kerry was ranked the most liberal senator in National Journal’s vote ratings, never distanced himself from the party base, and was hampered with his dovish foreign-policy views at a time of war.


That’s instructive to remember as Obama’s reelection team tries to make the argument that Romney’s upper-crust background and lack of common-man appeal will be significant obstacles for him. For all his stylistic flaws, Romney is much closer to the electorate’s center than his partners in stiffness, Kerry, Gore, and yes, Obama. Despite his party’s demands for conservative ideological purity, Romney hasn’t been running very far to the right in the primary, thanks to a splintered conservative opposition, and he is still ensconced in the center-right sweet spot that wins elections.

A look at three recent polls testing where voters stand ideologically should give Obama’s team pause in viewing a matchup against Romney.

Exhibit A: In late December, Gallup tested how Americans viewed their own ideological disposition (on a scale of one to five, one being the most liberal), while also asking them to rate the ideologies of all the leading presidential candidates. Romney scored very close to the ideological average of 3.3, coming in at 3.5. Obama, by contrast, scored a 2.3, a full point more liberal than the average. To most Americans, the president is viewed as more liberal than Rep. Michele Bachmann is as conservative.

Exhibit B: A Gallup Poll conducted in late November and early December shows Americans greatly prefer the government to “grow and expand the economy” over advancing policies that reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor. Only 46 percent of voters surveyed strongly supported policies to tackle income inequality; 82 percent strongly supported policies advancing economic growth.

Exhibit C: A clear plurality of Americans identify themselves as conservative (40 percent)—more than the number of moderates (35 percent) and nearly twice as many as self-identified liberals (21 percent)—in a Gallup Poll surveying data throughout 2011. Even among Democrats, more voters consider themselves moderate or conservative (58 percent) than liberal (39 percent).

It’s that political typology that’s setting the stage for the 2012 presidential campaign, one that is going to offer voters a stark choice between two very different economic philosophies. This isn’t going to be a presidential campaign won or lost on style points; it will be litigated on substance.

Obama unveiled his vision last month in Kansas, calling for an active governmental role to level the unfairness of growing income inequality. He lambasted “breathtaking greed” as a major source of the economic problems. While short on specific prescriptions, Obama’s vision is in line with a traditional, pre-Clinton Democratic economic narrative that struggled to get much traction in the 1970s and 1980s.

Romney, after winning the New Hampshire primary last Tuesday, offered his counterpunch. Accusing the president of putting “free enterprise on trial,” Romney said in his victory speech that he would unapologetically defend the American ideals of economic freedom. He called for the elimination of regulations he saw as wasteful, including the repeal of Obama’s health care law.

The polling suggests that Romney holds the political high card on this argument, and it will take scathing attacks portraying Romney as a heartless capitalist to dent his ideological advantage. The problem for Obama is that he’s burdened with his own record of being unable to turn around a stagnant economy, which will give the Romney campaign plenty of ammunition to use against him.

If the 2012 election were being waged during prosperous times, Romney’s vulnerabilities would be glaring. But the burden is on Obama to persuade a skeptical electorate to embrace a message centered on income inequality as the path to getting the economy back on track. And that’s a bigger hurdle to overcome than Romney’s awkwardness.

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