The Ivory Soapbox: ‘Rescuing Romney’

| Forum Editor

This past week has marked two important moments in the 2012 presidential campaign. First, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken between Sept. 9 and 11 shows President Barack Obama enjoying a seven-point lead in Ohio and five-point leads in Virginia and Florida. Yes, the president is enjoying his post-convention bump—though it’s important to note that Romney’s was a three-point jump that put him neck and neck with Obama and quickly evaporated—but given that Romney must win at least two of the three states to be competitive, it is a telling poll nonetheless.

Second, a video leaked from a May 17 private donor meeting shows Romney telling attendees that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on the government” and “believe they are victims,” further adding that his “job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Romney has been slammed by pundits and politicians across the ideological spectrum. Things are looking grim for the man looking to unseat the president. At this point, 47 days out from the Nov. 6 election, with some Americans already sending in their votes, there is exactly one thing that can salvage Mitt Romney’s presidential bid: the debates.

It is too late for the presidential hopeful to change how he is popularly perceived by Americans. His background as a wealthy, wildly successful businessman, as well as the Obama campaign’s adept use of it, has left voters with the relatively inelastic impression of him as representative of America’s superrich (which isn’t necessarily bad) and as being out of touch with the common voter (which is). The leaked video only reinforces this view.

Romney, however, does not need to change how he is viewed by the American people to win. What he needs to do is change how they perceive Obama, and he would be far from the first candidate to successfully utilize televised debates to do just that. Indeed, he need not even successfully defeat Obama on policy issues to turn the tide of the election. Consider the 1960 elections, in which Democrat John F. Kennedy overcame a significant deficit in support to snatch the election from Republican Richard Nixon. The turning point of the election was the presidential debates, the first in the nation’s history to be televised. Nixon, tired and unshaved, exuded an aura of sickliness while Kennedy, well-groomed and well-rested, was the picture of a confident, politician at ease. The radio audience, with no visual aids to influence its opinions, declared Nixon the winner while those watching at home, the far larger audience, handed the debate to Kennedy. He won the popular vote by .16 percent a few weeks later.

Or, for a more recent example, look to the 1980 debates between President Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. 1980 is remembered as a watershed election in which Reagan won a landslide victory and revolutionized conservatism. But two weeks before the election, and two days before the critical debate, an Oct. 26 Gallup poll showed Carter enjoying a comfortable lead of 47 percent to 39 percent.

What changed? Two moments in the debate destroyed President Carter’s bid for reelection and handed the presidency to Reagan. The first came in a discussion of nuclear weapons policy. Carter claimed to have asked his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, what she thought the most important issue of the election was, to which she allegedly declared the control of nuclear arms. The second, and most replicable by Romney, was Reagan’s answer to a detailed, policy-heavy critique of his voting record. With a smile and a sigh, Reagan responded, “There you go again,” and the election was won.

Romney’s campaign is not one of many solid policies or proposals, but to win in November, it doesn’t need to be. The presidential debates will in all likelihood be the last impression voters will take of the candidates to the voting booth, and if Romney can come across as a better man, policies or not, the election will be his.

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