Why Romney's "Rich" Gaffes Will Cost Him

Why Romney's "Rich" Gaffes Will Cost Him

By David Paul Kuhn - February 3, 2012

It’s easy to collect Mitt Romney's "rich" remarks into a highlight reel. Have a few laughs. Sure, we ask, what's the guy thinking? We note that presidential races require your A-game. But then it's tempting to shrug. And say he's still on track to win the GOP nomination. That the general election will turn on the economy. Oh, those silly pundits. How they do obsess over every sound bite.

But listen to Rush Limbaugh on Romney: “He comes across as the prototypical rich Republican.” And one begins to hear why Romney’s gaffes are no joke.

It’s commonly said that this primary has left Romney worse for wear. It has. But not because of Newt Gingrich. It’s not a matter of backfiring attack advertising. It’s not even that, predictably, more Americans see Romney in an unfavorable light as the primary heats up. It’s his words. Romney’s wounds are self-inflicted. And, if he wins the nomination, we’ll see why.

Presidential campaigns are a battle of perceptions. Not ideas. Big ideas help. But presidents are not made by policy proposals. You may have read wonk-tastic hyperbole about the making of the president. That it’s only or “always the economy, stupid.” It isn’t, really. Yet the Great Recession has not gone away. The economy dominates this campaign. The campaign, however, counts. The media exaggerates how much. But some events do matter.

Gaffes matter if they affirm the worst perception of a candidate or party. Most presidential campaigns inevitably sink into the mud of battling stereotypes. It never helps, however, to arm the opposition.

Political scientists call it “issue ownership.” The public perceives certain issues as the wheelhouse of each party. Perceptions fluctuate but endure. And so do the stereotypes associated with them. Democrats are seen as culturally elitist. Republicans are seen as economically elitist. Presidential candidates cannot control the stereotypes they inherit. But they can control how they undercut or underscore them.

Romney has underscored. It’s not any one comment. It’s the collective narrative they cement. Political junkies are familiar with the gaffes. But the larger public is not. Democrats will seek to change that if Romney is their opponent.

Picture the Democrats’ possible frames: Romney’s out of touch; the good Mormon as Gordon Gekko; Mitt’s Street vs. Main Street; Richie Rich Romney; Moneybags Mitt. The caricatures would be silly if they didn’t evoke serious issues.

Romney will be hammered as the personification of the GOP’s stereotype: the cold Republican who cares only about the rich. What Limbaugh called “prototypical.” Romney wants to run as the businessman who can turn the economy around. But does he increasingly look like the guy who hires you or fires you?

On Those Money Gaffes

Rewind. It’s early summer. There Romney is seated with jobless Floridians. It’s a typical I-feel-your-pain photo-op. But then came his tin-ear quip, “I’m also unemployed.”

Late summer in Iowa. Romney’s arguing that “corporations are people.” His point: People own companies.  But how you make the case impacts whether you win the case.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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