There’s something a little curious about Mitt Romney: Hardly anybody I’ve met really hates him, yet he is, objectively speaking, wildly unpopular. Andrew Romano breaks down some of the historical comparisons:
Since 1976, no serious contender, Democrat or Republican, has watched his favorable ratings fall as low as Romney’s have in recent months. Or watched his unfavorable ratings climb as high. Or watched his overall numbers stay underwater — that is, more unfavorable than favorable — for so long.
At this rate, Romney is shaping up to be the most unpopular presidential nominee on record.
Why is this? Why is an essentially bland, scandal-free figure so unpopular?
The main reason, I suspect, is that the Republican Party is extremely unpopular. The Bush years deeply discredited the GOP, and while Republicans were able to make gains in 2010 by default, as the out party during an economic crisis, they did nothing to rehabilitate their image. Indeed, they have embraced even more unpopular positions than the ones that George W. Bush advocated. Romney has taken up the banner of cutting Medicare in order to make room for lower taxes for the rich, and that’s an incredibly unpopular trade-off.
What else? Romney has come to be defined by his wealth to some degree. This is not a problem if you’re able to pass yourself off as a rich guy looking out for the little guy, and Romney has tried to pass himself off this way. But it’s very hard to pull off given his actual policies. Romney has made his shorthand identification “I’m a conservative businessman.” That’s not a great sell for a Republican, except among hard-core Republicans (and, really, affluent Republicans, which is Romney’s base.)
George W. Bush presented himself as a compassionate conservative. Bill Clinton was a New (i.e., tough on crime and welfare) Democrat. Their personas were inherently crafted, at the most basic level, to disarm voters’ gut-level suspicion of their party. Romney has not done this at all.
Finally, there may be a way in which the lack of enthusiasm even among his supporters creates a kind of general downdraft. Consider this quote from conservative pundit Fred Barnes, which is intended as a solid endorsement of Romney: “His plan was to run as a moderate but govern (I think) as a conservative. He’s abandoned the moderate mask and positioned himself firmly in the conservative camp.” Barnes means this as a compliment, but the subtext is that Romney is a huge liar. Romney has been forced to reinvent his persona so many times that it has become impossible for almost anybody to buy into the idea that he is a consistent, principled figure.
To venture well beyond anything I can back up with facts, it seems to me that presidential campaigning involves an element of myth-creation. You create an aura around your candidate, and the fervent support of true believers leeches its way onto the undecided. When undecided voters detect resignation or half-heartedness among the true believers, perhaps it sends a signal that the candidate must be terribly flawed.
A Romney adviser recently complained that the stream of mealy mouthed endorsements was depressing the candidates image. "'I’m happy to be with Romney because he’s the nominee' is like saying, 'I’m happy to be at the dentist because my tooth hurts,'" one frustrated Romney-ite told the Washington Post.
I suspect some version of this hurt the Affordable Care Act. Opponents were wild with indignation, while supporters were carefully measured at best, bitterly disappointed at worst. The imbalance of the tone helped persuade those in the middle, who were paying little attention, that the law couldn’t be all that good. Could the same dynamic be hurting Romney?