The Square Can Win

By David Paul Kuhn - April 26, 2012

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Romney’s conservative scruples may also prove an asset. The United States is one of the most socially conservative Western nations. Gallup has regularly found, over the past decade, that about eight in 10 Americans rate the “overall state” of moral values in this country as “only fair” or “poor.”

Americans may look at Romney and see a square. But, in terms of facial features, voters associate squares with leadership. Social scientists have found that people gravitate to the faces of politicians who exude competence above all else, including attractiveness. As Slate’s Libby Copeland wrote in January, summarizing the findings, “The competent face shape is masculine but approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, and large eyes. When people say Romney just looks presidential, this is the image they’re summoning.”

Romney’s True Problem

It’s a mistake to equate Romney’s square demeanor with his plutocratic demeanor. The latter is a serious problem. Nixon exuded stiff. But it was working stiff. And Nixon brilliantly understood the power of grunt imagery. “I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling,” he said of his wartime service during his Checkers speech.

Romney could never give that speech. “I keep waiting for Mitt to say, ‘Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?’ ” Rick Perry joked at the Gridiron dinner.

Romney speaks awkwardly about his wealth and class. His rich gaffes personify the negative stereotype of the ultra-rich Republican. H.W. Bush did as well. But the unemployment rate bobbed in the mid-fives in 1988. Romney’s Wall Street resume only further estranges him from Main Street. It helps Democrats frame 2012 as also about Romney.

Americans will elect squares. But there is a particular American allergy to snobbery and elitism. This is why the son of a president campaigned as a regular fella, more W than Bush. It’s why, in 1840, Whig William Henry Harrison framed himself as a humble backwoodsman. Harrison actually grew up in a palatial Virginia estate and was the son of a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. Americans wanted, even then, to elect a people’s candidate.

The patrician candidate can win voters’ favor. Yet most privileged sons who become president have formative stories to tell. Romney doesn't. There’s no war story. No storybook triumph. No great obstacle overcome. His business experience includes job growth and downsizing. He’s not the all-American industrial executive his father was. And Romney’s best emotional bridge to voters is closed to him. George W. Bush’s religiosity helped voters see the soul in the man. But Romney’s Mormonism gives him pause, and polls show his concerns are not unfounded.

Romney cannot compensate by simply mimicking Nixon’s 1972 strategy. There is no contemporary cultural frame that resonates like “acid, abortion and amnesty.” Instead, he can run on competence vs. incompetence. It de-personalizes the attack. Independents do not share conservatives’ disdain for Obama. Thus, Romney must bear-hug. His best tactic is to portray Obama as a good man but not the best man for the job, or up to the job. And Romney seems to understand that. “I think he’s a nice person, I just don't think we can afford him any longer,” Romney said in a recent speech.

The GOP presumptive nominee, therefore, need not match Obama’s aplomb -- let alone Reagan’s stage presence. Many presidents could not. He does not need to talk about his iPod playlist or sink three-pointers to win. He may be the underdog. But six in 10 Americans say the nation is on the wrong track. Americans’ distrust of politicians is at historic levels. This public is crying for competence more than compassion.

So the stiff can win as that competent man. And he should welcome the association with “square America.” Obama does not want to be seen as attacking that America. The left has already learned that a “silent majority” can also make presidents. As Theodore White wrote of the 1960 campaign, “Predictions of a Kennedy sweep based on crowd response ignored an enormous political truth: that quiet people vote, too.” 

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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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