One of the most established findings in political science is that an incumbent’s record is central to the public’s judgment in a campaign for reelection. But what about challengers? A challenger’s campaign is more about the promises the candidate makes and their personality. Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, journalists, scholars, pundits and citizens alike are seeking to delve even deeper into his seemingly impenetrable background and qualifications in order to evaluate his ability to be president. Last month, the Miller Center hosted a Forum with Boston Globe investigative reporter Michael Kranish, who recently co-authored a new biography on Mitt called The Real Romney. For those of you who weren’t able to attend the Forum, we’ve put together some highlights.
One of the key conclusions one might draw from Kranish’s remarks is how lessons of history have shaped Romney’s approach to the 2012 election. Kranish began by recounting a story from 2006 when the Massachusetts health care law had just passed, making Romney a national figure. Campaign activists from Iowa approached Romney to ask tough questions about how he would connect with average Americans. Rather than face the questions, Romney gave the Iowans “the cold shoulder.” Although the activists did return home to run Romney’s campaign in Iowa, he lost that caucus in 2008. But Romney applied lessons from that experience this time around. Instead of reaching out to social conservatives, he focused his campaign on the economy and making a broader appeal to party followers that “could fit on a bumper sticker.”
But the tough question the Iowa activists asked still remains this election cycle: why is it that Romney has so much trouble connecting with average voters? Kranish argued that one reason is lessons learned from his father’s own bid for the presidency. George Romney flip-flopped on Vietnam, initially supporting the war, but later arguing he had been “brainwashed” by the Generals. The “brainwashing” comment killed his campaign before the first presidential primary in the 1968 election. The implication of this lesson is that Romney has chosen to be a scripted candidate and that comes with consequences for the public’s perception of his persona. A second reason he’s had trouble connecting with average people is that he grew up in a series of “bubbles,” according to Kranish, from attending elite schools to a series of high-level finance positions before running for the Senate. Therefore, he is unlike local politicians, but he is determined and data-driven. People continue to search for something tangible to grab onto in order to learn more about his personality. And that’s why the story of Seamus the dog has gained so much traction.
Morality and religion will also influence public evaluations of candidate’s character. According to Kranish, there is no doubt about Romney’s morals. His father really ingrained in him the importance of morality and ethics from their Mormon faith and Mitt believes deeply in it as “one of his most important treasures.” In fact, the “maddest” Mitt has ever been was with President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Kranish acknowledged that while Romney’s personal morality is unquestionable, people will likely disagree with him about what is ethically right or wrong for the country in terms of policy choices.
What do most people get wrong about Romney? Kranish said there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding about how Romney earned most of his money at Bain Capital. According to the campaign talk, it sounds like he went in and risked his money as a venture capitalist. In fact, he made money through buy-out deals and because of “being hit by the lucky stick.”
In addition to personal characteristics, the candidate’s positions on issues play an important role in the public’s evaluation of the challenger. What will Romney do with regards to the government role in the economy and healthcare? Kranish said that the best thing to do is examine Romney's actions as governor. He dealt with a Democratic legislature; he was pragmatic; he balanced the budget as required by the state constitution. But healthcare reform wasn’t a campaign promise – Romney came up with that idea in the midst of his governorship. In this presidential election, he has campaigned for as little government as possible. Romney supported the Wall Street bailout, but not the Detroit bailout, and he’s been criticized for it. Romney said he would repeal Obama’s healthcare plan and replace it with something else. However, it’s unclear exactly what will change and debates over healthcare plans will certainly take center stage in the general election campaign.
What will Romney’s foreign policy look like? Romney doesn’t really have any direct foreign policy experience, but many candidates for president don’t. While the economy is likely to be the primary focus in this election, foreign affairs will play an important role, and Barack Obama does have experience and a record with which the public can compare the candidates. Romney has declared he is a staunch ally of Israel. He has also taken a hard line on Iran, saying the country will not have a nuclear weapon if he is president. And while he has said he will balance the federal budget over time, Romney also said he would increase military spending.