Rick Santorum’s February surge underscores what many have been saying all along: Republican voters are unwilling to accept Mitt Romney as their nominee. While Romney has considerable political experience and remains the strongest threat to President Obama this fall, he has failed to charm the base. Romney’s image is at the core of this problem: Harvard and Massachusetts, long associated with liberal elites, are not popular attributes, particularly in the eyes of Tea Party members. Yet, Romney graduated from Harvard’s Law and Business Schools and served as Governor of Massachusetts.
These connections have reinforced the perception that Romney is “out of touch” with ordinary Americans. Romney has attempted to distance himself from Harvard and cast himself as the conservative standard-bearer during the campaign with mixed results. The right’s perception of Romney as disconnected will continue to haunt him throughout the nominating process, but it is unlikely that this would harm him significantly among Republican voters in the general election.
The Albatross of Elitism
“Harvard is the symbol of elite America,” Vanessa Williamson, co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, told the HPR. This symbolism has been evident for decades with Richard Nixon calling Harvard, “the Kremlin on the Charles” during the 1970s. Even today, conservative commentators dub HLS professor Elizabeth Warren a member of the “Harvard elite.”
According to Williamson, when conservatives refer to Harvard elites, they criticize cultural or liberal elitism. “Fear of elitism is a fear of cultural elitism … the Tea Party is concerned about liberal, coastal elites who look down on average Americans,” she explained.
Harvard professor Brett Flehinger agrees, telling the HPR that conservatives like Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum express, “a critique of liberalism.” Republicans and Tea Party supporters do not want those associated with elite institutions and liberal surroundings in positions of power. This Republican definition of elitism may explain why Mitt Romney is confronting a larger issue with his association with the Ivy League than both President Bushes, who attended Yale. They had the benefit of a Texan identity, while Romney’s connection to the elite Ivy League is compounded by his history as Massachusetts Governor.
With conservatives holding these beliefs, Romney clearly began his campaign at a disadvantage when it came to connecting with Republican voters. Indeed, Romney has experienced what Harvard-affiliated Williamson found when she researched the Tea Party. She comments, “As a general rule, people were suspicious before they met me.” Romney similarly has to shatter this barrier of suspicion.
Trying to Break Through
Romney has taken several measures to connect with conservatives; on a superficial level, Flehinger notes Romney has been wearing open-collared shirts and jeans this campaign cycle. He also has placed, “great emphasis on patriotism” to stave off perceptions of disconnectedness from ordinary citizens, and singing ‘America the Beautiful’ has become a regular feature on the stump.
More importantly though Flehinger believes Romney is “running as a businessman.” While this positioning as a businessman highlights his wealth, giving him a more traditionally populist definition of elitism among Democrats and Independents, it actually plays well with conservatives. The Tea Party members Williamson interviewed “weren’t [classic] populists.” She reasserts the idea that, “right wing populism aims at cultural symbols of the left wing…being rich is not a bad thing, and in fact is something to be admired.”
Furthermore, Flehinger observed that throughout the nomination process Romney’s opponents have not paid attention to his multiple houses. Such an attack on personal wealth would likely sit poorly with Republican voters, even though Newt Gingrich has not shied away from criticizing job-cutting aspects of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Still, even this attack earned Gingrich criticism because fellow Republicans found parallels with liberal attacks on the free market.
Although Romney’s personal wealth itself does not raise concerns for Republican voters, he has made several gaffes regarding his wealth, earning widespread criticism from the media, Democrats, and even some Republicans. He infamously bet Texas Governor Rick Perry $10,000 at a debate over previous statements on the individual mandate. He even jokingly referred to himself as “unemployed” while speaking with a group of unemployed Floridians. Both incidents were widely covered by the media and Democrats sent out email blasts to supporters in hopes of raising money from Romney’s perceived aloofness. Some Republican opponents, like Rick Perry, criticized the bet as, “a little out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen.” The bet, however, along with his unemployment joke, proved unimportant with the Republican electorate.
In addition to attempts to separate himself from perceived elitism, Romney has explicitly put distance between himself and Harvard. He has repeatedly criticized Obama as out-of-touch, asserting that the President’s Harvard-linked foreign policy advisors advocate for more diplomatic engagement and reduced military strength. In a strong address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, Romney criticized these advisors, stating, “That may be what they think in the Harvard faculty lounge, but it’s not what they know on the battlefield!”
But Romney’s attempts to distance himself from Harvard are often little more than words. Romney retains many Harvard professors and alumni as advisor, including economic advisor Professor N. Gregory Mankiw and key foreign policy advisor Kennedy School Professor Meghan O’Sullivan. Romney additionally continues to donate substantial sums to Harvard Business School according to recently released tax returns, and he has received over $56,000 from Harvard professors and their spouses in campaign donations since 2002.
To Williamson, Romney in a way has become “a Tea Party candidate.” Not only has he, “made a big effort to show he’s not still the guy who passed Romneycare,” but he has, “done things like show support for the Ryan budget.” Through these actions, Williamson claims Romney has sent signals to conservatives that he shares their orthodox views. Many leading conservatives have responded positively to these demonstrations of conservatism. Tea Party favorites South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Delaware 2010 Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell, and many others have endorsed him.
There is evidence however, that despite his support among leading conservative figures, Romney has not made a favorable impression on voters who express strong anti-elite sentiments. He has struggled with Tea Party supporters and self-identified “very conservative” voters throughout the nomination process. He also has lost several caucus contests, which tend to be smaller and filled with more conservative members of the Republican base.
Explaining Romney’s losses thus far, Williamson said, “No one I interviewed a year and half ago liked Romney. They still don’t like him.” She finds substantial evidence of his impalpability to many Republicans on Tea Party blogs. For example, the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation posted a link on their Facebook page to an article entitled, “The Mitt Romney Deception” while posing the question, “If you are supporting Mitt Romney as a Tea Party person, ask yourself – is he the kind of person that best represents Tea Party values?” A February Rasmussen Reports survey also showed Romney trailing Santorum among Tea Party supporters by 35 percentage points and “very conservative” voters by 36 points.
If Romney can reduce these deficits like he managed in Florida and use his vast organizational advantages to outlast his opponents, he should be able to arrive at the Republican National Convention with the nomination sewn up. His ability to counteract his elitist image will matter little in winning the conservative votes, although he will certainly face Democratic attacks on his fabulous wealth. According to Williamson, “Beating Obama is the number one concern…He doesn’t have to worry that [anti-elite conservatives won’t] come out to vote in the general election.”
Focus on November
Romney may be a Harvard-educated governor from Massachusetts, but he is nothing like Obama in the eyes of conservatives. Nevertheless, Obama does not have an elitist image problem with his own party as Democrats subscribe to more economic-based populism, and consequently see Obama as the son of a single mother who broke through significant social barriers to achieve success. The President is, however, roundly criticized by Republicans for elitist viewpoints. Flehinger noted, “Obama’s personality, aside from other issues like race, makes him more susceptible to that criticism [elitism].” Additionally, Flehinger observed, “Figures of the far right have done a good job of keeping him ‘foreign.’” For conservatives, Obama is emblematic of the cultural or liberal elitism Williamson described. This disdain for Obama will keep conservatives from staying home on Election Day even with Romney as the Republican nominee.
For Romney to win, he must focus on November, given that time is running out for Romney to successfully shed his Harvard and Massachusetts background. While mitigating his elitist image is certainly important, his success will ultimately entail convincing Republican voters that he remains the strongest contender in the general election.
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