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The Phrase That Lost Romney the Election

The Phrase That Lost Romney the Election

By Heather Higgins and Alex Cortes - November 23, 2012

What if we told you that the election was decided by a phrase?

You might not believe it, but assume we’re right for a minute. What word would you guess decided the election? Hurricane Sandy?

The answer lies in perhaps the single most illustrative exit poll question conducted, where CNN asked “What is the most important candidate quality to your vote?”

The response options were “Strong Leader,” “Shares Your Values,” “Has a Vision for the Future,” and “Cares about People.” Among folks that chose one of the first three responses, Mitt Romney won between 54-61% of their vote. But, among folks who chose “Cares About People,” Romney lost dramatically – 81-18%.

“Cares about you” is the single phrase that lost Romney the election. Those for whom empathy was the most important candidate quality clearly did not get a sense that he cared about people and worse, many eventhought he was antagonistic towards many Americans. Why was this so?

Romney’s business career, which was the central argument for his candidacy in an election dominated by the economy, was turned into a weakness by the left and the Obama campaign early on, with them portraying his experience leading Bain Capital as one of the opposite of care: harm. Laying people off, taking away their pensions, and destroying communities, Mitt Romney allegedly brought all of these across America.

The Bain attacks were less about vilifying Wall Street (though that too) and more about conveying the message “he’s not like us, he doesn’t care about us.”

Many voters bought into this early portrayal of Romney as one who does not care for people. Others, who did not quite buy into it, still held it as a potential lens through which to consider his future actions and statements. Thus, when Romney essentially proclaimed that the 47% of Americans who receive government assistance were a lost cause, the statement confirmed, to the others, the narrative that he does not care for people.

You might ask, could not a rational voter get beyond whether they felt a candidate cared for them, and ask which candidate’s policies would best care for them and future generations? Such a purely rational decision-maker, often referred to as homo economicus, is rare among human beings that are first driven by their moral intuitions, like compassion, before their strategic reasoning.

In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt presents volumes of research demonstrating the primacy of moral intuitions which “reason” is then used to buttress. It includes his in-person interviews where, of the 1,620 times that the interviewees were told of a repulsive story that explicitly stated no one was harmed, 38%, tojustify their revulsion at the outcome, nonetheless said that someone was harmed. The interviewees’ moral intuitions immediately led them to condemn the repulsive story, claim there was a victim, and then use their strategic reasoning to support their position rather than truly consider whether there was a victim.

If you do not meet people’s moral needs, their strategic reasoning will not be unlocked to consider your arguments, but instead used to search for reasons to reject your arguments. This reality led Jack Kemp to say “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Mitt Romney may have had the better plans for America, but before voters were willing to consider them, they first had tothink that he cared about them, which too many did not.

Haidt’s research further elucidates the particular importance of care as a moral foundation. His study of anthropology and evolutionary theory led him to the conclusion that humanity possesses six moral foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, sanctity, and loyalty. In over 130,000 individual interviews on how relevant each of these moral foundations are to determining right and wrong, Haidt found that conservatives respond to each of them whereas the center and the left appreciate essentially only two: care and fairness.

With the shrinkage of the Republican base by 9 percent over the last few years increasing the importance of attracting voters beyond the base, it is critical that Republicans frame the discussion of their policies in the context of these two moral foundations that resonate with the entire country. That, or they can slip into permanent minority status. 

Heather Higgins is the president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice. Alex Cortes is the Executive Director of Let Freedom Ring.

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Heather Higgins and Alex Cortes

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