Home > News > 'Wealthy plutocrat' isn't Mitt Romney's issue. It's the Republican Party's issue.
205 views 6 min 0 Comment

'Wealthy plutocrat' isn't Mitt Romney's issue. It's the Republican Party's issue.

- January 19, 2015

Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential nominee, speaks during the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego on Jan. 16.
(Gregory Bull/Associated Press)
In a speech on Friday night, Mitt Romney said:

“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before. Under this president, his policies have not worked. Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done.”

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is skeptical:

“The problem for Romney is that he is regarded by many, at least today, as a wealthy plutocrat primarily concerned with feathering the nests of his affluent friends. Romney might have the right message — frustration and anxiety over income inequality is everywhere in the country — but he seems like a uniquely poor messenger to carry it.”

I am also skeptical, but for different reasons. If Republicans pursue an anti-inequality or anti-poverty agenda, the issue is less that any individual Republican messenger is wealthy. It is more that the Republican Party is fighting an image that is decades old and not easy to change.
I wrote about this two years ago, and I think the point still stands. Consider the results from two polls:

  • When asked, “When you think of people who are Democrats, what type of person comes to mind?” 38 percent selected “working class,” “middle class” or “common people,” while only 1 percent selected “rich” or “wealthy.” The opposite was true when asked about Republicans: 31 percent picked words such as “wealthy” and “business executive” while 6 percent chose “working class” and its kindred.
  • When asked which party was “better” for different groups, 51 percent said that Democrats were better for the poor vs. 22 percent who said that of Republicans (the rest said that the parties were about the same or that they were not sure). And 39 percent said Democrats were better for the middle class vs. 31 percent who said that of Republicans. By contrast, most (54 percent) said Republicans were better for Wall Street; only 13 percent said that of Democrats.

Here is the crux of the issue for Republicans. The first poll was from 1953. The second was from May 2012. Sixty years passed, but little changed in how Americans perceived the two major parties.
That is true in other respects, too. As political scientist and Monkey Cage contributor Danny Hayes has shown, for more than 30 years, Americans have consistently perceived Democrats as more likely to “care about” ordinary people, something that could reflect the apparent impact of the two parties on the incomes of ordinary Americans.
The challenge for Republicans is even greater because attempts to change party stereotypes often fall on deaf ears. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush wanted to steal a traditionally Democratic issue and be the “education president.” Meanwhile, Michael Dukakis trespassed on the GOP’s turf by emphasizing national defense and riding in a tank.
Political science research showed that it didn’t work. Americans defaulted to partisan stereotypes and thought that Dukakis was emphasizing education and Bush was emphasizing defense. It’s not necessarily impossible to buck stereotypes. In 2012, Rick Santorum was perceived as more sympathetic to the middle class than Romney was. But it’s still not at all clear that focusing on poverty will change how people view the Republican Party, no matter whom it nominates for president.
However, we need to go one step further: It’s not at all clear that Republicans even need a different message on inequality or poverty to win elections. People vastly overestimate how much party “branding” affects election outcomes, much as they overestimate the impact of individual candidates.  “Wealthy plutocrat” may be an issue, but ultimately not a big problem.
For example, take the Democrats’ advantage in terms of who “cares about” people — aka the “empathy gap” between the parties. It has been a chronic feature of presidential elections since 1980, but, as I noted in 2012, the GOP has won several of those elections without closing this gap. Moreover, Lynn Vavreck and I showed in “The Gamble” that, had Romney been able to close the “empathy gap” in 2012, he still would have lost the election.
Here’s another example: Despite all the branding and re-branding of the parties, Americans’ views of the parties’ ideologies are very stable.  To voters, the Republican Party is as conservative, and the Democratic Party as liberal, as they were in 1972.
In short, some in the GOP want to change the party’s reputation as the “rich person’s party,” and I am skeptical that it would work. I also don’t think it needs to.