Slipping, Slipping...

26 Sep 2012

It seems that the old idiom “it never rains but it pours” has never been truer for Mitt Romney than it was last week. No sooner had his half-baked attempt to score political points from the assassination of the United States’ ambassador to Libya spectacularly backfired than some grainy footage in which he disparaged almost half of the American electorate surfaced. To make matters even worse, his campaign’s promise to unveil a new strategy with more details on Romney’s plans (they had been blatantly absent hitherto) was not to be, as his gaffes left him standing awkwardly in the media limelight.


Romney was caught on film at a fund-raising dinner in Florida in May saying that the 47% of Americans who do not pay income tax “believe that they are the victims” and could never be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” As the cherry on top he added that they “believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it...and they will vote for this president no matter what.” In a sense, it is true that he has fewer voters to convince given the increasingly polarised electorate. As Republican Don Fierce explained, “The number of people we’re trying to win over is very small...that’s what’s different from 1980 or other campaigns in the past — there’s such a small number that are there to move.” Notwithstanding polarised politics, writing off half the electorate in a rather supercilious manner as ineffectual sponges is probably not the best way to go about convincing that small, undecided chunk.

As The Economist notes, the frozen party loyalties in American presidential elections do not mean that elite actors cannot influence the fringe sections of the partisan electorate, and this year it looks like capturing just those swing voters will be key to winning. Obama will benefit from a steady support base of Hispanics, African-Americans, and university-educated women in addition to changing demographics. What were previously traditional swing states, such as Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, have now become Democrat strongholds thanks to the rising Hispanic share of the vote. 

Whilst gaffes are a staple feature of campaigns and a rite of passage for most politicians in the spotlight, Romney risks alienating part of his more moderate elite by pandering to the strident, yet stale, ideas of his conservative base. Having tacked back to the centre of the political spectrum after the primary he has dispelled his image as one of the more moderate Republicans only to reveal that he is clumsily out of touch with the electorate as well as fickle when it comes to his positions on important issues. He seems to have gambled everything on the economy, which is indeed the overriding issue of November’s election, but has failed to capitalise on the general disenchantment by offering a specific plan for revitalising it and creating those elusive jobs. Moreover, his lack of a plan seems to signal that he has staked everything on the economic situation being so dismal that it irreversibly tarnishes Obama’s record so as to make his re-election inconceivable. It is quite a hazard to rely on external events, rather than one’s own capacities, to attain leadership of a country.

It is also hard to see how Romney will be able to surmount the high level of public admiration for Obama which is impervious to depressing economic data and stems rather from his historic significance as the first black president. The high degree of public sympathy for Obama arising from those voters who do believe he was handed an exceptionally bad hand of cards from his predecessor George W. Bush will also play in his favour, unless, say, Romney is banking on the United States being hit by an economic cataclysm on the scale of Lehman Brothers between now and November.

Romney’s vacillating positions highlight his lack of an overarching and most importantly, vaguely inspiring message. He churns out the standard Republican spiel on the economy and foreign policy (actually he’s said precious little in this regard) but has failed to translate it into a clear, coherent and specific message about how he is going to turn the status quo around. Even if we were to overlook the absence of a vision, we could not find Romney compensating for this with his personality. In fact, he just comes across as being a bit awkward, flailing about like a goldfish thrown out of its bowl. He does not have Obama’s penchant for rhetoric and has pretty much handed his opponents a joker card with his background, which was always going to be a magnet for flak in tough economic times. This is not to say that his career at Bain Capital is worthy of condemnation per se, but rather that any other candidate would seek to mitigate its potentially negative legacy and turn it around to highlight the leadership, business know-how and management qualities that Romney demonstrated there. It goes without saying that telling a bunch of fellow millionaires that almost half the American electorate is a hopeless case is, to put it lightly, not wise.

The presidential race is still not set in stone, and given how fast things have turned in the recent weeks it is perfectly possible for them to turn back the other way. It would be rash to write off Mitt Romney just yet. But if he keeps fudging along as he has until now he will quickly have finished digging his own electoral grave.

By Julia Fioretti


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