This morning, when Politico asked what were the big mistakes of the campaign, I wrote:
Both campaigns appear to have made effective use of “big data” analytics, computational tools and capabilities that are having a profound effect on modern life. Both campaigns excelled at raising money. But, as the old adage goes, no matter what the marketing campaign you can’t sell dog food if dogs don’t like it.
That leaves the fundamental question of the competing narratives of the two campaigns. Here, Governor Romney had a tremendous talent for making serious, considered arguments in a way that annoyed the general public rather then persuading them.
Two of his most famous mis-steps, calling corporations people and saying that he likes to fire people fall into this category. These are serious arguments. In the first case Romney was replying specifically to calls to raise corporate taxes and more broadly to the idea that there are magic pots of money that could easily be obtained and solve America’s problems. Corporations are owned by and employ people, if their taxes are raised they have less money to hire employees and develop products. This reduces their value which effects stockholders, category that includes billionaires, but also charitable foundations, pension funds, and college savings accounts. This is a serious point, but it came out all wrong.
Similarly with Romney’s statement that he “likes to fire people.” The ability to “fire” people is fundamental to the free enterprise system – which has been the most profound generator of wealth in human history. It creates incentives for improving performance. If a consumer is displeased with their plumber, doctor, or astrologer they have the option of seeking another and thus the service provider seeks to maintain the quality of their product. But, the statement, coming at a time when so many are out of work, seemed tone deaf and heartless (which by all accounts Gov. Romney is most certainly not.)
Interestingly, there was another case of this in the second debate. Not the famous “binders” statement which in content was utterly innocuous (Romney was merely doing exactly what anyone would want him to do, which is to seek out and hire qualified women.) Granted it sounded strange. Romney’s goof was in the question on gun control in which he talked about single mothers. Here again, there was a serious point. Time and again research shows that children in two parent families overall have far better outcomes in terms of education and behavior. This is not that single mothers are not good people – it is that parenthood is difficult and two parents are almost always better then one. The break-down of the traditional family is a serious issue and Romney was not wrong to raise it (although as a conservative one must be very humble about what can actually be done about it.) But again, the way in which Romney articulated a serious issue came off as insensitive.
Ronald Reagan had a talent for making these kinds of arguments through anecdotes without offending people (except those who were inclined to dislike him anyway), but this is not easy to do. Where Reagan was the master of the narrative, Romney is much more the master of data – a worthy skill but not necessarily what the American people are seeking.