How is it that an unpopular president was able to win re-election in a down economy? The answer, it seems, might be found with a single voter: Maria Rossi.
Born in Italy, the 60-something grandmother immigrated to the United States as a child, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. Today, she works as a part-time nanny for a two-earner couple in Connecticut. Her husband works in the maintenance department at a local university.
Rossi is your classic working class, ethnic Catholic — what pollsters used to refer to as a Reagan Democrat. In 2004, she voted for George Bush. In 2008, she voted for John McCain.
In so doing, Rossi, and others like her, defied the conventional Republican wisdom: that Mitt Romney could — at the very least — count on the support of those who voted for McCain in 2008.
Republican strategists believed that the 2012 GOP nominee would start with a built-in base that could only expand, as former Obama supporters became disillusioned with the president’s ideologically-driven incompetence.
They were wrong.
Turns out, political coalitions don’t really build upon those of the past — they must be created anew each election cycle, cobbled together by the nominee through the power of his ideas and by the image he projects.
Rossi’s path from Bush/McCain supporter to Obama voter is instructive. In 2008, Rossi was turned off by Obama’s far left world-view and his utter lack of experience. McCain was not perfect, but he was a hero and a patriot. He was gritty. And tough. He came across as someone who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty in order to get the job done.
Romney’s image was different. He was from the patrician class. And Rossi was dubious of him from the start (as she had been of John Kerry in 2004).
Realizing that a significant segment of society would find it difficult to relate to the upper-class Romney, the Obama campaign went negative, painting Romney as an out-of-touch “vulture” capitalist who does not understand, let alone care about, people like Rossi. A compliant media provided the assist. Their relentless drumbeat of stories about Romney’s Cayman Island investments, his wife’s dressage horses, and that oh-so perfect hair crystallized Rossi’s initial impressions. Romney’s gaffes (“I like firing people,” for example) didn’t help the situation. Romney’s positions on issues hardly mattered — to Rossi, they were barely audible above the din.
And so, despite her frustration with Obama — particularly his attacks on Catholic institutions — on Tuesday, Maria Rossi returned to the Democratic Party.
Could Romney have done anything to prevent this? Perhaps. Some will argue that Romney should have fought back harder against the president’s negative attacks, or should have defined himself earlier in the campaign — rather than waiting until the debates to show us who he really is. Had he done so, it is possible that Romney might have been able to prevent the Obama campaign from painting him with a pitchfork and horns. But my guess is that this may not have been enough.
You see, in the modern era, Americans seem to value “relatability” above all else. Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan may have come from different backgrounds and different ideological perspectives, but each had the ability to connect with average voters.
In the end, Romney is who he is: a wealthy gentleman. And although these are traits that many can admire, they are also traits with which few Americans can truly “relate.”
Jennifer C. Braceras is a lawyer and political commentator.