The reason why Mitt Romney’s condescending comments about the “47%” have done such damage to his candidacy is simple. As Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “The only thing in politics that is worse than voters deciding they don’t like you is when voters decide you don’t like them.”
In politics there is no bigger sin than disrespecting voters. It is a sin that is rarely, if ever forgiven. You can explain your policies and programs. You can argue until you’re blue in the face about how effective you are as a “manager”. It won’t matter.
People don’t want leaders who treat them with disrespect – who believe they are unable to “convince” them to take responsibility for their lives.
Respect is such a core element of voter decision-making because it addresses one of our primary self-interests as human beings. More than most anything else, people want to feel that they have meaning – that their lives make a difference. Meaning in life is our core motivator, and once you tell people that they are, in effect meaningless pond scum, they are not so inclined to choose you as their leader.
Being disrespected is toxic in just about any human interaction. Nothing engenders more hurt or rage than the feeling that someone thinks you don’t matter. Ask the wife who feels that she is being treated like a piece of furniture by her husband. Ask the employee who can’t stand the high-handed attitude of his boss. Ask any high school kid what he or she fears the most – the disrespect of their classmates.
Great leaders inspire people. That’s just the opposite of communicating disrespect. Inspiration is not something you think, it’s something you feel. When you’re inspired you feel empowered. You feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself and you can personally play a significant role in attaining that greater goal. When a leader inspires you, he or she does not make you feel that he is important. He makes you feel that you are important – that you matter. Disrespect communicates exactly the opposite.
In the 47% video, Mitt Romney did not imply that he disrespected half of the country. He said it directly. He said he didn’t care about “those people” because he could not convince them to take responsibility for their lives. What an arrogant, patronizing, disrespectful thing to say about half of the population.
And it was plain to see that this was not a gaff. Romney wasn’t awkwardly searching for words. What you saw was the real Romney – the one that his campaign tries to hide – speaking to the home-boys and home-girls from the board rooms and the country club.
The tape by itself would have been bad enough. But its power was magnified because it was one in a long line of Romney comments that showed disrespect for everyday Americans. They have ranged from his contemptuous put down of the cookies a local person had served him at a drop-by at their back yard, to his patronizing, “I love to fire people,” to his constant reference to “those people”.
And his disrespectful comments extended to his “blooper reel” foreign trip last summer, where he managed to disrespect the people of London and their competency to run the Olympics, and the culture of every Palestinian.
Then again, it should not be surprising that disrespect should characterize the Romney foreign policy. He has surrounded himself with a Neo-Con foreign policy team from the Bush years that specialized in showing disrespect for pretty much everyone else in the world. That worked out well.
The 47% tape simply served to confirm what most people were already feeling about Mitt Romney – and that’s why it is something that Mitt Romney will find it very hard to escape.
He will try hard in the debates to be respectful and empathetic to the voters. It won’t work, it’s not who he is.
When the Washington Post asked them last month the person they would rather have as the captain of a ship in a storm, the voters were about evenly divided between Obama and Romney. Now they choose Obama 52% to 40%.
That’s partially because the Conventions gave voters a chance to think about where each candidate would lead the country, and which one they believe has the vision and skill to effectively solve the country’s problems.
But it’s also because many voters have become convinced that if Romney were the captain, he might have so little respect for them that he would throw them overboard.
Disrespect correlates very highly with another key parameter that affects voter behavior – the perception of whether a candidate is “on your side”. Of course it is entirely possible for someone not to be “on your side” and respect you all the same. That happens all the time in sports (or as Romney would say “sport”). Two teams have conflicting goals and do battle to win, but show the deepest respect for each other’s skill. The same thing happens over negotiating tables in business everyday.
But nothing fires up the members of a football team more than the belief that the other side doesn’t respect them.
And nothing makes for a more inspiring a story, than when everyday people stand up to those who have disrespected them and refuse to be defeated. That’s exactly what is going to happen November 6th.
Bottom line: you can be a rich guy and win Ohio. But you can’t be a rich guy who disrespects the voters and win Ohio.