Mad Men Attitudes and 21st Century Politics
By every measure it seems clear that Ann Romney has the smarts, style and personal qualities to be a very popular and successful First Lady. But as good a surrogate as she can be for husband Mitt, it will be her husband’s name and not hers on the November ballot, which simply means she can help his campaign not carry it.
Ann Romney’s notable attempts to “humanize” her husband and at the same time close the Romney and Republican Party gender chasm may help at the margins, but most likely not enough to erase one of the two really serious demographic challenges confronting the almost certain GOP nominee. The candidate and his party must engage in that heavy lifting.
Let’s start with the obvious: if you need a conscious strategy to “humanize” a real person, you have a real problem. Last week the Romney campaign rolled out an online video of the genuinely appealing Ann reminiscing about raising her five sons, as well as Mitt who she said was often the “sixth son.” The video was a not very well disguised effort to address some of the important political news of the week, President Obama’s lead over Romney in new a poll conducted in key swing states. That nearly double digit lead is now in place largely thanks to Romney’s collapsing support among women.
To borrow a popular culture reference, this situation is a little like running the completely buttoned down 1960’s ad executive Don Draper from television’s popular period piece Mad Men for president in 2012. Handsome, out of touch Don just wouldn’t make it as a 2012 candidate and, while Romney may not have Draper’s various addiction problems, he acts like a guy from the 60’s who will never open up and will certainly never get in touch with his feminine side. Romney seems most of the time like a man transported through time to a place far, far away. He’s a 1960’s man in a 21st Century campaign. You can’t humanize that.
In last week’s USA Today/Gallup Poll of swing states, President Obama led Romney 51-42 among registered voters, and remember this research was conducted in places like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa were our national elections are decided.
“The biggest change from previous polls,” USA Today reported, “came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.”
[Romney’s other potentially fatal demographic flaw is with Hispanic voters, but that’s a column for another day.]
From Rush Limbaugh to state legislatures, the Republican brand with women is tarnished, perhaps irrevocably in this election cycle. Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, dates the pivotal moment of the GOP collapse among women to what seemed at the time to be a completely off-the-wall question during a GOP debate early this year in New Hampshire. You may remember that George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Romney if he shared his opponent Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.”
Romney ridiculed the question, the audience booed George and most of us chalked it up to Stephanopoulos getting too little sleep because of his early morning TV duties.
But, as Rich notes, Santorum’s birth control views just made him “an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the Supreme Court almost a half century ago.”
Meanwhile in state legislatures from Virginia to Idaho, anti-abortion themed legislation requiring women to undergo an ultrasound procedure as part of the visit to a physician prior to being able to access abortion services immediately became a potent symbol for what Democrats have begun to call “a war on women.” Whether its a war of not, the backlash over the ultrasound proposals was immediate and stunning in its intensity. After passing mandatory ultrasound legislation in the Idaho State Senate, legislative Republicans in the even more conservative Idaho House of Representatives heard from their constituents – their female Republican constituents – and suddenly discovered that the best place for the ultrasound legislation was in the bottom of a committee chairman’s desk drawer.
From personal experience I can attest to the fact that last time Idaho had a high-profile debate about abortion that carried with it national overtones – that was 1990 when then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed legislation that was not only harshly anti-female, but would have sent the state into years of litigation – the incumbent governor’s re-election was secured when he stood solidly against nationally-inspired legislation that was properly seen by women – and many men – as draconian. Conservative women flocked to Andrus, I’m convince not just because of his courageous veto, but because he displayed both toughness and compassion. In other words, the issue was a test of character. Andrus passed the test and voters – women included – could warmly relate to such attributes, which explains why Romney and the GOP are hurting with women.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, you may remember, lost her party’s nomination in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed opponent. She then mounted an nearly unprecedented write-in campaign in the general election that returned her to the Senate. Murkowski is what passes for a moderate in the national GOP these days and comments she made last week in her state place a stark frame around the problem Romney must fix if he hopes to win the White House in November.
“I think what you’re sensing is a fear, a concern that women feel threatened, that a long settled issue might not be settled,” Murkowski said on a radio talk show in Homer, Alaska last week. As the Homer News reported, “[Murkowski] cited things like conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about a female Georgetown University law student, which Murkowski called ‘offensive, horribly offensive.'”
“To have those kind of slurs against a woman … you had candidates who want to be our president not say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s offensive.’ They did not condemn the rhetoric,” Murkowski said.
The paper continued, “From her perspective as a Republican, Murkowski said she can’t understand why some in her party have raised reproductive rights as an issue.”
“It makes no sense to make this attack on women,” she said. “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”
So, while national unemployment numbers released last week should be confirming the GOP’s laser-like focus on the economy as the on issue that really threatens the White House incumbent, the campaign narrative for a solid week has been “war on women” and his party’s and Romney’s gender gap.
Here, I think, is the larger context for November: I tend to buy President Obama’s assertion last week that women simply don’t vote as some monolithic block that is up for grabs for a skillful candidate who appeals to the magic mix of “women’s issues.”
When it comes to politics, women are discerning voters – period. What the toxic issues mix has done to Romney and the GOP is to provide for many women – and men – a lens through which it’s possible to get a definitive glimpse of “the unzipped” Mitt, as wife Ann might say. Had Romney even a little finesse in handling these gender bending issues – think of his stumbling answer to whether Augusta National ought to allow women members or his tepid reaction to Limbaugh’s sexist bashing of an outspoken female law student – he could send all voters, particularly women, a message that he gets real life beyond his private equity experience and Ann’s two Cadillacs.
Still, rather that providing the cause of the gender chasm, the “women’s issues” mix really provides a footnote for reference on Romney’s real problem with discerning voters – they just aren’t into him. As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, “It is entirely possible that women simply aren’t that into Mitt. He’s just not their kind of guy. Health care, taxes, budgets, debt ceilings, capacity utilization, Chinese currency: so important. But at the end of the day — does he have “it”?
Parker goes on to say, “His wife says he does, but then she knows the unzipped Mitt. The question for American women is, do they really want to go there?”
In politics, of course, issues do matter, but discerning voters can sift the issues for what really matters; indications of character and connection. They may not want the candidates unzipped, but most voters do want to support candidates with whom they are comfortable, with whom they can – here’s that magic political word – connect.
Women are sending a pretty simple message: If there is no connection, there will be no Romney election.