The 2012 swing constituency of the moment are white working-class voters.
In light of a tepid economic recovery, millions of underemployed Americans, and a national unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, many people who were working-class before the mortgage crisis of 2007 and 2008 are now out of ‘work’ altogether.
The stage is set for GOP challengers to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign to capitalize on this desperate situation. Mitt Romney has maintained a slight lead throughout the process, and is widely considered the presumptive nominee. But his lack of appeal beyond circles of middle and upper-middle class conservatives has been the proverbial thorn in his side.
Early in the primary season, Romney has been the victim of gaffes which reveal his weakness in retail politics. The 10,000 bet he flippantly offered Rick Perry during a debate last fall, or his expressed jubilation at the late Senator Ted Kennedy having to mortgage his home to raise money to defend his Senate seat in 1994 didn’t do the former governor any favors.
And now the list of gaffes includes a more recent statement that Romney likes “firing people” and another debate answer explaining that his father told him not to run for office if you need the paycheck — suggesting only the wealthy belong in public life.
These minor mishaps — politically speaking — haven’t managed to undo Romney. But now his actual record is being called into question, and challenged by those whose lives were changed as a result of his business ventures (or misadventures).
Romney has himself admitted he did not grow up poor, and so can’t necessarily relate to those struggling to survive the present economic malaise. He has instead touted his experience in business, mostly at Bain Capital, as the best example of how he can “turn the American economy around”.
During his tenure with the Boston-based private equity firm, Romney managed to build personal wealth of at least $250 million, and bought, sold and invested in companies worldwide. A part of his legacy, not often discussed by campaign surrogates, were the manufacturing plant closings and jobs shipped offshore to India and China.
This is the subject of a 28-minute video being released today by a pro-Gingrich super-PAC. It tags Mitt Romney as a greedy corporate raider, and features older, white, working-class people saying he stole their futures.
“We had to load up the U-Haul because we done lost our home,” one woman said, speaking of her struggles after Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital restructured the business she was working for.
According to the New York Times, the film contains images and audio cutting back and forth between Romney’s ”$12 million California beach house” and interviews of working-class whites describing the pain and disappointment of losing their jobs.
A man named Bob Safford appears wearing a Vietnam veterans hat: “Who am I?” he asks. “Mitt Romney and those guys, they don’t care who I am.”
There is also footage from Romney on the campaign trail being jeered by crowds after his infamous declaration: “Corporations are people, my friend”.
All this comes after heated debate exchanges between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the one-term Massachusetts Governor regarding the onslaught of negative campaign ads run against Gingrich during the Iowa Caucuses.
Gingrich, who had initially called for a positive approach to fellow GOP candidates, has chosen to engage in politics as usual, after the negative campaigning initiated by Romney supporters successfully dismantled Gingrich’s December surge, leaving him in a fourth place finish in Iowa.
Today, New Hampshire voters will go to the ballot box in the campaign season’s first primary. If news headlines are to be believed, it seems Bain Capital is as much on the ballot as Mitt Romney. His record there is front and center of the political conversation, and questions about jobs and how many he created (or destroyed for profit), will likely dominate future debates as well.
Ironically, this is a rue of Romney’s own making.
It was Mitt Romney who chose to center his campaign around his real-world, corporate experience. He has touted his time in financial services as the best qualification for the presidency: juxtaposing it against President Obama’s political and academic credentials. But when he claimed that he had created “more jobs” than Obama, reporters and staff members of his GOP rivals began looking for answers.
Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post looked into Romney’s assertion that he had created a net 100,000 jobs during his tenure at Bain. Further research found that Bain had invested in successful ventures like Staples, The Sports Authority and Domino’s Pizza — all of which have indeed created thousands of jobs, but only after Romney had left the firm. Kessler also discovered that Romney’s 100,000 job-creation claim failed to take into account job losses from the other companies with which Bain was involved.
In contrast, Barack Obama will be able to run on two years of consistent job growth. The latest figures from the Department of Labor show an increase of 200,000 new employees in the job market last month alone.
With an increasingly dubious record, Romney’s present challenges from fellow members of the GOP will certainly be duplicated and accelerated by David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, and the entire campaign operation headed by the DNC.
Another intriguing issue will be whether white, lower middle-class voters will be used against Romney, much as they were against Obama.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin’s campaign pulled no punches in trying to frame Obama as out of step with the needs and concerns of the white working-class. At first it seemed an odd strategy, considering Obama had been raised by his working-class, white grandparents. But as race played a greater role in the 2008 campaign, their message gained traction. Though Obama won the battle, the sentiment that McCain-Palin gave birth to lived to fight another day. After Obama’s victory many of those base GOP supporters coalesced into the Tea Party movement, which delivered a win for Republicans in the 2010 midterms.
Obama had been successfully cast as a liberal elite: too academic, and lacking a practical approach or a personal touch.
Now the ‘Reagan Democrats’ are up for grabs in a year when the economy is struggling and class matters just as much as race. Romney has clumsily sought to appeal to people with whom he has no natural connection, and Obama’s team have been actively pursuing a populist message. The president has devoted the past six months to pushing for Congress to pass his “American Jobs Act,” and has visited small towns across the country to bring to light the need for infrastructure projects and local investments.
Romney’s challenge is two-fold. The GOP is splintered between the establishment figures of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and the lower, white middle-class voters who tend to be socially and religiously conservative. In the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s, it would have been easier for Romney to make his case. But hard times call for desperate measures, and those voters may see in Obama a sympathetic ally.
Romney has been remodeling his $12 million California home, while calling for banks to foreclose on the less fortunate. That message may play in the cozy towns of New Hampshire today, but it seems doubtful that unemployed voters or those barely making ends meet in Ohio, Pennsylvania or West Virginia will have a similar appetite.
NBCUniversal and Bain Capital are each a part owners of the Weather Channel. NBCUniversal is the parent company of theGrio.com.