One way to think about the 2012 presidential campaign is as a battle between two houses: Barack Obama's White House and Mitt Romney's San Diego house. The Romney campaign would like to make Obama a prisoner to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., turning every perk and privilege of the presidency into a sign that he is far removed from the people he is supposed to lead, especially anyone struggling in this economy. “Years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you what a great job you are doing, well, that might be enough to make you a little out of touch," said Mitt Romney after his Wisconsin primary victory.
The Obama campaign has a similar idea. They would like you to think of Mitt Romney as a man so encased in wealth that he can afford esoteric luxuries like the new car elevator planned for his San Diego home. (At Obama headquarters, they've named the elevators Romney 1 and 2 for each of his wife's Cadillacs.) "Gov. Romney calls the president out of touch," Joe Biden said last week in his dual role as attack dog and envoy to The Everyman. "Hey, how many of y'all have a Swiss bank account? How many of you have somewhere between $20 and $100 million in your [retirement account]?"
At the start of the general election, where each candidate is trying to define their opponent in the race for middle-class support, both have settled on the same message: My opponent is “out of touch.” The candidates will talk about jobs, tax rates, and the deficit, but those dry policy issues aren't going to stir the passions. Campaign strategists want to gall—or at least frighten—people into thinking that the other party’s candidate is so bubble-wrapped in privilege that he is incapable of understanding the problems of real people.
Obama should win this face-off easily, right? The polling suggests he's crushing Romney when voters are asked who is more empathetic. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 49 percent of those questioned think President Obama “better understands the economic problems people in this country are having.” Only 37 percent believe that Romney does. In a recent CNN poll, Obama is 28 points ahead with women when they are asked a version of that question. Plus, if you listen to cable news and the late-night comics, Romney can barely survive a fortnight without reinforcing the view that he is an out-of-touch rich guy: He says he doesn't care about the poor, he likes to fire people, his wife owns two Cadillacs, his more than $300,000 in speaking fees was “not very much,” and he pals around with NASCAR and NFL owners.
If the election is a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, then Romney is in tough shape. But Romney’s team doesn’t intend for the election to be a choice between two candidates. When they talk about the president being out of touch they are placing a bet on the race being a referendum on Obama’s economic record. Right now 51 percent disapprove of the job Obama is doing running the economy. Only 41 percent approve. In today’s Gallup tracking poll, on the broader question of his job performance, 48 percent give the president a thumb’s down, and 45 percent a thumb's up.
That is why Mitt Romney works so hard to keep this election about the economy. “Let’s hammer day in and day out what has happened under his policies," he said last week in a typical remark. You'll also start to hear Romney's allies taking tougher shots. The president holds fancy parties with rappers and pals around with NBA stars at his taxpayer funded home while millions of Americans are out of work is how one Romney adviser characterized it. When Obama got a little short with a reporter who pressed him on taking a vacation last week, Karl Rove (whose boss enjoyed a good deal of "vacation time”) used it to needle the president on Twitter.
It’s hard to say how much punch the "out of touch" charge carries because it is not the only thing voters care about. In a February Quinnipiac poll, 58 percent of those surveyed thought Obama cared about people like them, while 40 percent thought he didn’t. But in that same poll, 55 percent disapproved of the way he was handling the economy. Only 40 percent approved.
Despite Mitt Romney's 12 point empathy deficit in the Washington Post poll, he trailed Obama by only seven points overall. In today's Gallup poll, Romney is ahead of the president by a statistically insignificant 2 percent (45 to 43 percent). The Real Clear Politics average has Obama ahead by only 3 points. On the other hand, for a president whose approval rating is below 50 percent with 61 percent of those polled saying the country is going in the wrong direction, maybe Romney's lack of empathy is what's keeping it close.
Still, Romney is working hard to close the empathy chasm. In the end, he may never be able to connect with voters as well as Obama, but if he can shrink the gap, he'll improve his electoral chances greatly. So Romney’s team is embarking on an effort to reintroduce their candidate to an electorate that still has fuzzy impressions of him. Today the campaign released a video about Ann Romney full of warm family moments and audio of an attentive, emotional, and at times cooing Mitt Romney. The message is that the wealthy are regular people, too.