The Conventions: GOP Enters Stage Right
BU experts assess Romney’s task in Tampa and beyond
After a rocky road trip abroad that brought him criticism as a globe-trotting gaffe geyser, Mitt Romney claims the Republican presidential nomination in Tampa this week amid omens both good and bad for his White House hopes.
The good news—albeit unpleasant for the jobless—is that the wheezing economy haunts President Obama’s reelection. The bad news, says one BU observer, is encapsulated in those foreign flubs: either by background or personality, the former Massachusetts governor can stumble when trying to relate to people.
“Romney seems to have a tone-deaf quality,” says Elizabeth Mehren, a College of Communication journalism professor and a former Los Angeles Times and Washington Post correspondent. “He simply fails to connect with most working Americans. He is often aloof. His campaign events are so highly choreographed that he is generally kept at arm’s length and then some from ordinary citizens.” Recent polls in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania support her point: voters displeased with Obama’s economic performance nevertheless rated him better than his challenger at understanding their needs.
Tropical Storm Isaac delayed the convention’s start, which is just as well, since history suggests few will watch either party’s gathering. These quadrennial forums have become Kabuki for leaders and activists, introducing already chosen nominees to an ever-diminishing television audience—a far cry from their original role of actually picking party standard-bearers.
“All those delegates in funny hats carry very little weight when voters go to the ballot booth,” save for the rare convention with a mishap, Mehren says.
John Carroll, a COM assistant professor of mass communication, agrees that conventions can be “video wallpaper so mind-numbingly choreographed that they have little to no impact beyond a slight and fleeting bounce in the polls.” But a convention can also become “the real Etch-a-Sketch” moment in which the candidate remakes his public image, he adds, and along those lines, he offers this advice for the Republican nominee’s acceptance speech: Romney, who has struggled to establish his conservative bona fides with the GOP’s base, “needs his come-to-Jesus moment, when he wholeheartedly embraces the conservative wing of the party, convinces them he’s genuine about it, and feeds them some red meat.
“It would help if he embraces his wealth as well, and he should turn the tables on Obama about tax returns by framing it as Big Brother trampling the privacy rights of a decent, God-fearing American,” Carroll advises. The president and his allies have questioned whether Romney is hiding damning information by releasing only limited returns.
Katherine Einstein, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science, argues that Romney can best use his time in Tampa perfecting his pitch that he’s a better economic manager than the incumbent. The wind at Romney’s back, she says, is the July uptick in unemployment and the fact that “it is pretty unlikely that the economic news for Obama is going to improve dramatically by November.” Einstein believes that fact explains the president’s attack ads in key states against Romney’s career at Bain, the private equity firm he founded: “They’re trying to undermine his claims of effective economic management.”
Neither she nor Mehren expect Romney’s Mormon faith to be a major hurdle. Despite many Americans’ ignorance and concern about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Einstein notes that a June Gallup poll found that only 18 percent of Americans rule out voting for a Mormon, and that Muslim candidates face greater antipathy. Carroll disagrees. While “no one will raise the Mormon issue openly,” he believes it lurks in the shadows of Obama’s what-is-he-hiding attacks.
Romney’s fall to-do list, says Mehren, must include recovering from his overseas gaffes, which made him look “both clumsy and a novice,” and handling the simmering issue with conservatives of his health care reform in Massachusetts. Although the GOP candidate condemns Obama’s national reform, that legislation was based on Romney’s Bay State law, which she says “has been both successful and hugely popular.” Carroll thinks the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the law poisoned the issue for Romney. Einstein is not sure how it will play out.
Her uncertainty raises the question: what unforseeable influences might spoil the best-laid plans of campaigns and pundits? Will there be a foreign crisis? How will the candidates perform in their fall debates? And what about the “Super PACS,” through which wealthy contributors lavish donations on candidates?
A Democratic Super PAC has pounded Romney in ads about his work at Bain. Meanwhile, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future “vaporized one challenger after another during the primaries,” says Carroll, “and now—along with Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS, etc.—will attempt to do the same to Obama.”
Romney’s ticket-mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, comes with his own strengths and challenges. “He will need to find a way to present his and Romney’s ideas as the best means of addressing the country’s economic and deficit woes,” says Einstein, even as some of them (partial privatization of Medicare and large tax cuts for the rich) poll poorly with crucial constituencies.
Those potentially radioactive ideas make Ryan’s selection a bold pick for Romney, but timid at the same time, says Carroll, opening him up to charges of folding “like origami” to hard-core conservatives who’d lobbied for Ryan. The danger for the GOP comes, Carroll says, if “Ryan’s budget plan gets hung on Romney like Christmas lights. And the more Romney backs away from it, the more he looks like the Wafflin’ Mitt of old.”
Find more election year analysis and commentary by BU professors in the video series “Campaign 2012.”
Read about BU students covering the Republican and Democratic conventions here.