Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My fellow Americans. Well, 53% of you anyway...

Mitt Romney. 47%. What can you say?

For those who have not been following the U.S. Presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has attracted the worst kind of media attention this week.

In a nutshell, a video of Mr. Romney addressing donors this past spring at a private, $50,000/person fundraiser has been released. In it, Mr. Romney speaks quite candidly about the electorate and in particular about the 47% of Americans who:

(a) will vote for President Obama no matter what;
(b) don't pay income taxes;
(c) possess a victim mentality;
(d) are dependent on the state; and
(e) will never be convinced to take personal responsibility for themselves.

During his remarks, Mr. Romney made it quite clear that this is not a portion of the electorate on whom he intends to focus much time during the campaign. In effect, he was saying that in the context of his search for votes they were a lost cause.

Now I could go on at length about the multiple problems with these remarks, but I will leave that to the media and the Obama campaign. Let me limit my comments to these points:

- His remarks ignore all of the other taxes individuals pay, often in percentage amounts which total more than the percentage of taxes he pays;

- His suggestion that this 47% is not prepared to take "personal responsibility" is insulting and ignores the fact that this percentage includes, among others, seniors, veterans and working families.

- He is campaigning to be President of the United States, not 53% of it and therefore needs to be seen as a President for all and not some; and

- He has given a very stark message to donors which in terms of tone and scope is markedly different from his remarks on the campaign trail, all of which gives the impression of someone who is not being forthright with those whose votes he is seeking - "one message for a vote, another for a dollar."

Suffice to say, the evening the video was released probably made some Republicans hark back to the good old days when the extent of their problems was a rambling Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.


If we move beyond the obvious and deserved criticism of Mr. Romney's remarks, there is another story and it is one which is common to all modern political campaigns. It is the story of targeting and focus.

During the 2011 Ontario election, I posted this piece on the forgotten voter; the voter who tends to get lost in the messaging as the parties vie for slices of the electorate.

This notion of slices of the electorate is not new, but it's dominance in election strategy is now pre-eminent. This is particularly true in the U.S., where the Presidential election is less a national one and more one which is comprised of several swing state battles, and a general focus on attracting support from a very small number of independents and undecideds.

In this regard, Mr. Romney's remarks - once you strip away the ugliness, elitism and most distasteful elements of modern conservatism embedded within them - are consistent with how all parties approach a campaign.  Get out your base and focus on those areas which can deliver the very thing you set out to achieve - power.

For Mr. Romney, the challenges associated with a twin focus on base and swing voters are great. In order to appeal to and mobilize his base he must tack heavily towards the right.  In order to appeal to independents and undecideds, he must appear more moderate.

Put another way, how he approaches the one can very easily alienate the other.  It is precisely the type of tightrope-walk that can lead a candidate to give one message on the hustings and another behind closed doors.

Mr. Romney fell off that tightrope this week.  The coming weeks will tell how damaging a fall this has been.

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