Regardless of how closely you are following the presidential election, everyone knows that Mitt Romney is rich. With wealth comes both positive and negative perceptions. According to a Pew Research Poll, a plurality of Americans believe that rich people are more likely than the average American to be intelligent and hardworking. The poll also shows, however, that Americans believe the rich are more likely to be greedy and less likely to be honest.
The negative perception of rich people shown by this poll can explain why Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital is used so frequently against him in campaign advertisements. He is painted as a greedy capitalist, engaging in hostile takeovers of firms, and a dishonest businessman, keeping money in a Swiss bank account. Romney’s opponents are pandering to the rich stigma and it's reflective in polling. A majority of Americans believe that the policies of a Romney presidency would benefit the rich, with only 31% believing his policies would help the poor and 40% believing his policies would aid the middle class.
In 2004 there was a candidate of comparable wealth running on the Democratic ticket in John Kerry with a very rich running mate as well in John Edwards. His wealth was so massive even Romney joked about it eight years ago.
Did Kerry avoid the rich stigma? To begin with, the network media was not nearly as obsessed with Kerry’s wealth as they are currently with Romney’s. To be fair, the New York Times did publish reports on Kerry’s wealth on three separate occasions during the 2004 campaign. Interestingly enough, although trailing in September of 2004, Kerry’s likeability rating was greater than President Bush’s after the first debate. This finding is important because it shows that the rich stigma can be overcome by showing one’s competence in a public forum.
Romney’s wealth is definitely a large factor in his likeability deficit in comparison to President Obama. If there is one thing Romney can learn from Kerry, when the spotlight is on, perceptions can change. Kerry’s debate performances closed the gap between himself and Bush, making the 2004 election a much more competitive race than expected in September 2004. When it comes to debates, Romney can juxtapose his economic vision with President Obama’s and present a convincing case to the American people. Romney is currently in a tie with the president regarding the economy, and capitalizing on the issue that is most important to Americans in 2012 is a key to success. Romney can showoff his policy side in debates. The Republican National Convention, however, is a primetime opportunity in which Romney needs to show the public who he truly is: A family man, a community leader, a hard worker, a problem solver, and a man of impeccable character.
He needs to bring his five children up on stage along with his 18 grandchildren to show that behind his businessman background and political front, he plays the same roles of parent and grandparent as almost every adult American does. Like how President Bush publicly discussed his alcoholism, Romney should devote more time to describing how he spent time counseling members of his congregation on their marital problems, substance abuse, and financial difficulties. Even prominent Democrats like Newark Mayor Cory Booker believe the attacks on Bain Capital are unjust, and President Clinton lauded Romney’s “sterling business career.” Romney needs to emphasize the hard work he put in to making the firm as profitable as it was by the time he left. He needs to bring up the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and tell the anecdotes about cutting wasteful spending, such as removing the catered food services and charging $1 per slice of pizza at meetings. Above all, he needs to show America that he’s not running for the sake of being president, but rather that he is legitimately committed to making a difference in people’s lives.
These personal stories, such as how he led his Mormon mission in France after being involved in a car accident, humanize Romney in the eyes of the American people. It makes him no longer that arrogant rich guy trying to unseat the populist president, but rather a man who has had his fair share of struggles and trying experiences and who is not disconnected from the American people by virtue of his bank account.
Mitt Romney is undoubtedly qualified to be the next president of the United States, but he must tell the American people the details of his life story to win votes and truly overcome the rich stigma.