ROMNEY’S FIRST major problem is that his celebrity, born at the 2002 Winter Olympics, has failed to stick. True, he took part in an international spectacle back in February, one that brought him shoulder to shoulder with the then wildly popular president of the United States. That burst of international publicity established Romney as the front-runner in a race with the unpopular Swift. But that was a long time ago and 2376 miles away.
"There was a lot of speculation that his celebrity status, because of the Olympics, would carry over," says Greg Payne, the director of the Center for Ethics and Politics at Emerson College. "It speaks to the temporary nature of celebrity. Our culture has a very short attention span. You’re a celebrity today, but there’s another person replacing you the next."
Indeed. A parade of events has already replaced the Olympics in the public’s mind. Corporate wrongdoing has been the big story this year. Not a month goes by, it seems, without another major financial scandal grabbing the headlines: Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, WorldCom, ImClone, the list goes on. And that’s not all. This summer saw a spate of child kidnappings. This fall marked the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Heck, Romney’s already been trumped by other politicians in the never-ending quest for celebrity. Last August, when the country was gripped by the story of the nine men trapped in a mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, that state’s governor, Mark Schweiker, commanded the national spotlight. It’s telling that Schweiker’s celebrity, too, has subsequently waned.
The problem with Romney’s celebrity was that his success took place so far away from the state that residents never had a chance to imagine his applying it here at home. Compare that with the fame of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich. As a cabinet secretary for former president Bill Clinton, Reich never achieved the level of popularity Romney did with the Olympics. But Reich stuck in the minds of voters, thanks to his frequent newspaper columns in the Boston Globe, his radio commentary for Marketplace, which airs weeknights on WBUR, and his books. Romney, on the other hand, spent three years laboring in a different media market on the other side of the continent, with only occasional breakouts on a national level, such as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
The Olympics presented Romney with a brief window of opportunity, but his insistent references to that event already ring hollow — as when he invokes the games, for example, to explain how he’ll fix state-budget problems. Never mind O’Brien’s retort that the federal government bailed out the Olympics. By the time Romney operatives respond with figures demonstrating that the federal money went only for security and other related costs, you realize you’ve spent all this time debating something that went on in Utah — Utah! Let’s face it: Massachusetts is still a parochial place where individuals who’ve earned any number of achievements outside the state are greeted with indifference when they cross I-495.
Romney and his advisers seem oblivious to this dynamic, however. Take his "Rocky" ad. In an attempt to woo the all-important independent voters who value individual candidates over political affiliations, Romney’s handlers turned for an endorsement to a Democratic politician with whom he had worked successfully. It was a creative idea. At least on paper. Inexplicably, however, Team Romney selected a politician few voters in Massachusetts, if any, had ever heard of: Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson. Posing in front of a poster of John F. Kennedy, Anderson urged Bay State voters to support Romney. "I’m a proud Democrat. People often say I’m a Massachusetts-type Democrat," says Anderson, who praises Romney for his work on the Olympics and cleaning up the games. "To me, the person is more important than partisan politics."
While Anderson may be an effective politician in Utah, his words lack credibility here. Not only is he an unknown, but his praise raises an obvious question: if Romney’s so good, why didn’t you keep him? Greg Payne, of Emerson, says the Anderson ad is particularly ill-advised given most voters’ level of political interest. "Most people in Massachusetts barely know who their own mayor is — except for Menino," says Payne. "How much is there in common between a typical Massachusetts voter and somebody from Utah? If Romney appeals to a Massachusetts-style Democrat, he needs a Massachusetts Democrat endorsing him."
Media consultant Dan Payne, the mastermind behind some of the best political ads for Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, is also critical of the Anderson ad. "If Shannon O’Brien were to run a commercial where the treasurer of Indiana, a Republican, said, ‘Vote for Shannon O’Brien because Shannon O’Brien and I worked together well,’ what effect do you think that would have?" he asks. "This ad was just a waste of money. Who is this guy to tell us how to vote?"
WITH NO PRIMARY opponent, Romney had a considerable window of opportunity to convince Massachusetts voters that he had the solution to the state’s problems. But he squandered it. Beginning in May — just before the Democratic convention — Romney began a series of "work days" around the state. In these events, he went out to different settings — a New Bedford fishing boat, a gas station in South Boston, a sausage stand near Fenway Park, and a trash truck on Beacon Hill, among others — and pretended to work at various jobs for a day. The events made for colorful campaign stops and attractive photos in the daily newspapers. The Romney campaign then crafted a campaign ad from video footage of the work days and paid for it to be broadcast over and over and over again. But the more state voters saw the ad, the less they liked it. He got no spike in the polls and, worse, the ad was fodder for talk-show and media ridicule.
Globe columnist Joan Vennochi took a shot at Romney for his stint as a mechanic checking oil: "Next time, wear jeans without a crease when you are pretending to check the oil. Regular folks don’t dry clean their Levi’s. And while you’re at it, don’t look so surprised to find real oil in the oil pan. That’s where it’s supposed to be, my man." As O’Brien has been noting at campaign stops around the state, the ad seems to show that Romney doesn’t even know how to check oil. He pulls the dipstick out of the engine, wipes it off, and then looks to see what the oil level is. In this regard, Romney should be thankful he’s not running against Birmingham. "If we had won, I was going to do an ad with a Ken doll dressed up as a baker, as a fisherman, saying, ‘I understand working people,’" says Birmingham’s media consultant, Michael Shea.
Team Romney failed to grasp an obvious point: just because the successful businessman-turned-gubernatorial-candidate was able to dress up as a working person didn’t mean that ordinary voters would think he actually understood the way they lived. If anything, the ad brilliantly portrayed Romney as an effete dilettante who plays at showing concern for working people.
It’s mystifying that Romney didn’t take a page from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful run for the US Senate from New York — even though she’d been living in Washington, DC, for seven years prior to her campaign and never before lived in New York. Faced with the prospect of being branded a carpetbagger, Clinton took part in a mind-boggling number of voter town meetings. These were fairly scripted affairs during which residents asked her questions and discussed matters of policy. But they gave Clinton an opportunity to learn about the issues facing the state and — just as important — let her show New York voters that she was serious about the state and their concerns. It’s interesting that while these events at first reflected a bit of White House glamour, as the campaign wore on, they became tedious and boring — at least to the reporters who had to cover them. But they were a hit with voters, who began to view Clinton as someone who would advocate for the state. Writes Associated Press correspondent Beth Harpaz in her account of the campaign, The Girls in the Van (St. Martin’s, 2001): "None of the beachgoers seemed to care that this woman who’d never lived in New York and never been to this beach before was thinking about running for office here."
Romney strategist Mike Murphy was surely knowledgeable about Clinton’s listening tour. After all, he worked for the guy she beat, former congressman Rick Lazio. Nonetheless, the Romney camp rejected the strategy, opting instead for the less labor-intensive work-days media campaign.
What Romney gained with this strategy was an opportunity to get fabulous photo ops without having to sit through an actual listening tour — how mind-numbingly boring! — and risk saying something damaging at one of the events. What he lost, though, is immeasurable. The work days and the subsequent ad touting them gave a large number of voters the sense that Romney was above engaging in serious dialogue about issues, which, in turn, reinforced the sense that he was campaigning as an outsider with few ties to Massachusetts or its voters.
The impression that the Republican gubernatorial candidate generally doesn’t get Massachusetts voters was reinforced just last week, as Globe columnist Brian McGrory reported on October 11, when Romney muffed a political opportunity on the campaign trail with Rudolph Giuliani in the North End. Apparently, Romney rebuffed a man who offered to buy him a cannoli at Mike’s Pastry. Giuliani rescued Romney by offering to buy the man a cannoli himself. Concluded McGrory: "Mitt needs to can the chuckling, pound the occasional podium, and, when he looks into the eyes of the rank and file that he meets along the way, empathize."