Republicans are doing something quite strange at the moment. They are in the process of choosing a candidate whom hardly any of them actually likes. Though Mitt Romney won the Florida primary handily yesterday, rumbles of dissatisfaction with him continue.* Romney isn’t so much winning the Republican nomination as having it default to him for lack of any compelling alternative.
The case for voting for Romney goes as follows: Of the Republican presidential candidates, he is the only one with any real chance of defeating President Obama in November. In support of this electability hypothesis, Romney’s advocates elaborate such qualities as the candidate’s lack of any obvious mental defect, the nonextremity of his views, and his vastly superior financial and organizational resources. Seldom, however, do his half-hearted supporters evince any affection or enthusiasm for the man himself. They generally acknowledge Romney to be an insipid, somewhat blank personality, who is almost absurdly variable in his positions and core beliefs.
In this respect, Romney strongly resembles two similarly unloved Democratic nominees from the recent past, Al Gore and John Kerry. Gore and Kerry both suffered from the same characterizations that get applied to Romney—too wooden in person while too flexible in their views. Their supporters often argued that qualifications were what mattered. But ominously for Romney, both Gore and Kerry lost winnable races because of their flawed personalities. George W. Bush, on the other hand, got elected and re-elected, despite his enormous, substantive shortcomings, because ordinary people found it easy to relate to him at a personal level. They felt he wasn’t trying to be someone different from who he was.
Romney, Kerry, and Gore are all, in a way, versions of the same political type. Statuesque, handsome, from privileged backgrounds and impeccably credentialed, they have no log-cabin stories to humanize and ground them. Unlike a Lyndon Johnson, a Richard Nixon, a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton, or a Barack Obama, they didn’t overcome humble origins or broken families. Romney’s background is alien to most Americans not because he descends from polygamists but because his father was a governor of Michigan, an automobile company CEO, and a presidential candidate.
In his attempt to overcome his privileged origins, the unloved candidate struggles to establish his plain-folks ordinariness in ways that inevitably backfire. He touts his plebian tastes—pick-up trucks, country music, trashy food—and inevitably overdoes it or gets the background music wrong. Al Gore’s attempt to look less like a Washington politician yielded the “earth tones” fiasco. John Kerry asked for his Philly cheesesteak with Swiss cheese, and was photographed nibbling at this alien object rather than tucking in, as one does. Romney defended his claims as a sportsman by asserting that he had gone out hunting for rodents and varmints “more than two times.”
The public usually picks up on this authenticity gap—the space between who the candidate really is and how he wants to be seen. In each case, the problem manifests itself in a slight different way. A technocrat by nature, Gore disliked the performative side of politics. He wildly overcompensated for this by angrily shouting his speeches at rallies and demonstrating ardor for his now ex-wife with a soul kiss at the Democratic convention. His hyperbolic passion on the campaign trail made it a simple matter for Republicans to brand Gore as a compulsive exaggerator who claimed to have invented the Internet. Kerry’s problem was that he was pompous, too senatorial, and loved of the sound of his own voice. This allowed the Bush re-election campaign in 2004 to paint him Kerry as “French”: an effete snob and an unprincipled flip-flopper.
Even more than Gore and Kerry, Romney is running away from his own perfection. He must grapple with the affliction of excessive handsomeness, mussing his hair just so before appearances to avoid looking like a television anchorman. He struggles to seem ordinary despite his riches. But anything Romney does to downplay his wealth merely highlights the vastness of a personal fortune estimated at more than $250 million. And for the time being, at least, Romney must disguise his reasonableness, his record of businesslike practicality and ideological moderation. The number of people who can sympathize with such problems is rather small.
A version of this article appears in the Financial Times.
Correction, Feb. 1, 2012: The article originally said that said only 51 percent of Romney voters were satisfied with Romney. This was a misreading of the poll results. In fact, 95 percent of Romney voters said they would be satisfied with him as the nominee, and Romney won 51 percent of the Republican voters satisfied with the current field. (Return to corrected sentence.)