On October 13th, 2012, a reporter for the Washington Post’s Election 2012 Blog reported that Paul Ryan, accompanied by his wife and children, visited a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio after patrons had already left and the volunteers “appeared to have already cleaned up” (Sonmez). He proceeded to take “some large metal pans that did not appear to be dirty, soaped them up and rinsed them, remarking as the cameras clicked and the TV cameras rolled that he had spent a summer washing dishes when he was younger.” This has become a minor controversy now as organizations like CBS have learned that the Romney campaign never asked the head of the charity if Ryan could visit. According to Brian Antal, the president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, the apolitical nature of his organization does not authorize political candidates to stage photo ops there (Montopoli). This, combined with Romney’s other PR mistakes relating to struggling Americans, brings into question the campaign’s commitment to those less fortunate than him.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and Romney have been speaking frequently about the middle class, and both candidates have been trying to appeal to them by speaking about jobs and improving the state of the economy. Though both candidates are trying to look relatable, Romney in particular has had setbacks in this regard. In particular, his personal wealth (and how he acquired it) as well as his PR missteps have made it difficult for him to overcome this perception that he is out of touch with the common person.
Personal wealth has not always been a barrier to presidential candidates in recent history. In particular, John Kerry, who is worth $198 million (due in part to his wife’s share of the Heinz family fortune) (Bogardus, Wilson), was not attacked for his wealth but rather for his honesty when it came to his military service, attacks widely seen as a smear campaign (Hosenball). The problem likely arises from how Romney acquired his wealth. Though Romney gained a private education and an upper-class upbringing through his father’s wealth, he made a lot of it by running Bain Capital, a private equity firm that was involved early on in the business of outsourcing American jobs (Hamburger). He has to explain and defend that record to middle class families who are struggling because of economic challenges, and that record detracts from the narrative he wants to present. In that same article, the Romney campaign refused to comment on the specifics of Bain’s involvement with outsourcing, saying only that “Bain Capital’s business model has always been to build great companies and improve their operations. We have helped the 350 companies in which we have invested, which include over 100 start-up businesses, produce $80 billion of revenue growth in the United States while growing their revenues well over twice as fast as both the S&P and the U.S. economy over the last 28 years.” (Hamburger)
In addition to his personal wealth, his inability to connect with average voters has been a problem, most notably in September when a leaked video published by Mother Jones showed Romney’s comments behind closed doors at a fundraiser. The now-infamous “47% comment” that came from this video is just one gaffe in a string of many, from the $10,000 bet he offered to Rick Perry during a Republican primary debate (DeLong) to his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs” (Trumbull). This most recent PR misstep with Ryan in the soup kitchen shows that the campaign is trying to connect with voters, but do not understand that their actions could be seen as condescending or patronizing. Photo ops are, like every aspect of a presidential candidacy, meticulously planned, but while planning minimizes risk, the strategic gains made by Obama or Romney serving patrons at a soup kitchen could be offset by those who believe that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart, but rather in a calculated attempt to gain votes.
For better or for worse, presidential campaigns are as much about style as they are about substance. Campaigns realize this, and during the election season, hundreds of restaurants, bars, factories, and power plants are visited in an effort to meet average voters and give off the perception that the candidate is not afraid to get his hands dirty and fraternize with the commoners. During the election, the Obama camp has been emphasizing comments Romney has made in the past (including an entire campaign video on YouTube titled “Out Of Touch”) in an effort to make him unpalatable to those who are still undecided. Both Romney and Ryan have tried to come off as relatable, but given these recent PR missteps, the GOP ticket has a distinct disadvantage. Without this key attribute, the Republican ticket will have to rely on policies alone. Those, too, will be influenced by the perception that the Republican ticket is out of touch, as the opposite side can easily criticize his ideas as policies coming from someone who does not understand the plight of those all-important middle class voters. Having one hand tied behind your back like this is no way to win an election.
Bogardus, Kevin, and Megan R. Wilson. "The Hill’s 50 Wealthiest Lawmakers." The Hill. Capitol Hill Publishing Corp, 21 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/243625-the-hills-2012-50-wealthiest-in-congress>.
DeLong, Matt. "Mitt Romney Challenges Rick Perry to $10,000 Bet in GOP Debate." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/mitt-romney-challenges-rick-perry-to-10000-bet-in-gop-debate/2011/12/11/gIQAudrBnO_blog.html>.
Hamburger, Tom. "Romney’s Bain Capital Invested in Companies That Moved Jobs Overseas." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 July 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/romneys-bain-capital-invested-in-companies-that-moved-jobs-overseas/2012/06/21/gJQAsD9ptV_story.html>.
Hosenball, Mark. "Obama Campaign Accuses Republicans of Smear Tactics over Bin Laden, Leaks." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/15/us-usa-campaign-binladen-ad-idUSBRE87E01F20120815>.
"Mitt Romney: Out of Touch." YouTube. YouTube, 13 June 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw896Y4vzeg>.
Montopoli, Brian. "Charity President: Paul Ryan "did Nothing" at Soup Kitchen Photo-op." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57532807/charity-president-paul-ryan-did-nothing-at-soup-kitchen-photo-op/>.
Sonmez, Felicia. "Charity President Unhappy about Paul Ryan Soup Kitchen ‘photo Op’." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/15/charity-president-unhappy-about-paul-ryan-soup-kitchen-photo-op/>.
Sonmez, Felicia. "Reporters Barred from Covering Paul Ryan Exchange with Homeless Ohioans." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/13/reporters-barred-from-covering-paul-ryan-exchange-with-homeless-ohioans-outside-soup-kitchen/>.
Trumbull, Mark. "Another Mitt Romney Clunker? 'Ann Drives a Couple of Cadillacs, Actually....'" The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/The-Vote/2012/0224/Another-Mitt-Romney-clunker-Ann-drives-a-couple-of-Cadillacs-actually>.