Fresh off of his Super Tuesday “victories,” Mitt Romney was so desperately pleading his case that he was the inevitable winner of the Republican Presidential Primary, yet the results in Mississippi and Alabama reveal that the electorate is not ready to bestow that title upon him. While his wealth and political machinery may provide him the razor sharp edge he needs to pull it off, one thing has become painfully clear during these primaries—no one is enthused about him as a leader and even those who are voting for him are doing while holding their nose.
Even while outspending his opponents nearly 5 to 1 in Alabama and 2 to 1 in Mississippi why is a man who is physically attractive, established, successful, well educated and has a perfect pedigree for presidential politics so disdained by the public? Some pundits point to his flip-flop on key policies (or any policy for that matter), his never-ending string of public gaffes and his stiffness on the stump as the main culprits for his chilly reception. While these are legitimate observations they are the symptoms and not the cause.
The root of the issue for Romney, as it has been for all loosing presidential candidates, is the failure to be oneself, which it is the quickest path to electoral defeat.
Predicting electoral success is often seen a cross between deep dives into political data on economic trends, public mood and approval ratings. As one who has studied and taught political leadership for more than 20 years, there is a much easier way to predict success—which candidate is being real? Who can go out day after day and be true to themselves (or at least more so than their opponent) in front of a variety of different audiences in a vast array of situations?
By simply looking at the presidential elections in the 21st Century, we find numerous examples of this phenomenon.
- Bush v. Gore: Al Gore had everything going for him that a candidate could wish for, intelligence, experience and a successful double-term as Vice President for an albeit embattled, yet likable President Bill Clinton. The one thing he didn’t have was confidence in who he was—no, he wasn’t the exuberantly charismatic Clinton, and he was a knowledgeable, steady statesman with a vision of how to make government work more effectively. Unfortunately, Americans didn’t see this in presidential candidate Gore. Instead one day he was the earth-tone clad “green” candidate, next he was the “Blackberry on the belt” techno candidate only to hit his lowest moment as the exasperated wonk who couldn’t believe a dolt like George W. Bush could even be on stage with him in a debate. Like many Americans who also couldn’t believe Gore would be beat by someone so inexperienced, they underestimated Bush’s appeal in saying what he meant and meaning what he said. Government is too big, taxes should be lower and I am reformed sinner . . . while not exactly the qualifications most would list for America’s chief executive, being rooted in who he was, was enough to win. (Postscript: for those who want to debate the recount, Supreme Court decision etc.—I agree Gore should have won AND in keeping with the logic of this article, there is no way this race should have come down to 528 votes.)
- Bush v. Kerry: Need I say more?
- Clinton v. Obama: In what could easily have been a glass-ceiling shattering, crowning achievement for a life-time of excellence in public service, Hillary Clinton had everything going for her to clinch the democratic nomination for president. With a seasoned political machine and the fundraising prowess of a political dynasty at her disposal, her intelligence, her eloquence on the stump and her tireless advocacy on behalf of women and children worldwide were merely icing on the cake. And yet, somehow, an inexperienced, unknown, African-American first-term Senator was able to yank victory right out from under her. Why? Two key decisions kept then-Senator Clinton from the Oval Office. First, while the junior Senator from New York representing the people most devastated by 9-11, she seemed to have no other choice than in voting to go to war in Iraq. That vote ran counter to her core beliefs, and at some level, the public knew it. It was that vote that allowed Obama to garner the attention of those who were mystified by the capitulation to Bush and his fear-mongering cabinet. Next, in a continuing nod to the belief that what America wanted was a “strong, decisive” leader who could take that 3:00 a.m. call, all the qualities that made Hillary Hillary went out the door. As her campaign tried fortify her strength, without recognizing the public knew she was as tough as nails, they failed to support her in being human, which was all the public wanted to see. In her, teary moment after loosing the Iowa caucus the frustration overflowed, the public got a glimpsed of the real person and by that time, it was too little too late.
- Obama v. McCain: No time in contemporary presidential politics has a candidate so captured the hopes, dreams and inspiration of our nation. From a compelling personal story to his history-making march as the nation’s first African-American President Obama was Obama. McCain, however, veered from his maverick, and often bi-partisan style, to please the right-wing. In the end he came across as the much less sincere and fiery candidate than he has been at other times in his career.
While President Obama has failed to bring his dynamic vision for America to his governing, he remains a candidate who is comfortable in his own skin. Romney, on the other hand, has the resume and the skills to be useful to the country during this recession. It is unfortunate, that in his relentless pursuit of the office, he has so comprised who he is to assuage the far-right that there is nothing left but a caricature of himself.
So the challenge for Republicans is that they have a front-runner doomed to defeat in November. The current alternative, Rick Santorum is winning the hearts of many because he is so genuine on the stump—the challenge, however, is that who he really is so unpalatable to the mainstream he has no chance in November either. President Obama has to be the luckiest man alive . . . so perhaps being yourself in Presidential elections does have its rewards.
This article was originally posted at March 16, 2012 on Alternet
Kathleen Schafer is the founder the Leadership Connection (www.leadershipconnection.com) and the author of Living the Leadership Choice — A Guide to Changing Your Life and the World