Monday, March 5, 2012

Can Mitt Romney connect with the working-class voter?

Mitt Romney (source)

During a US Presidential campaign it is common practice for a candidate to engage in some form of impression management. For instance, in 2008 many media outlets thought John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a Vice Presidential candidate was a move to boost McCain's image as a "Maverick" candidate. For similar reasons, Bill Clinton played saxophone live on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 campaign. In these examples, candidates tend to create public personas that convey their similarity to average Americans (who tended to be younger, less wealthy/educated, and hipper than the candidates themselves).

This practice is still true in the 2012 US Presidential election: Candidates attempt to manage their public persona, to appear similar to the younger, working/middle class Americans that make up a majority of the voters in the election. Importantly, given that the country is just starting to recover from an economic recession, it is critical for candidates to appear that they understand and empathize with the average working-class American. The Republican Presidential hopefuls have varied widely in their ability to convey their understanding for working-class Americans. Perhaps the most successful candidate has been Ron Paul: One of the pillars of Paul's campaign has been putting an end to government practices that favor the elite. The least successful in my view has been Mitt Romney. 

It's not that Romney hasn't tried to appear to understand working class Americans. Actually, he has tried very hard to convince people of his understanding of the average American family. For instance, last weekend Romney was at the Daytona 500, mingling with working class Americans. A few months ago, Romney was photographed doing his own laundry, a move signaling that he engages in many of the everyday practices of the average American. Romney also has donned modest clothing, in an apparant attempt to look more similar to the working class Americans that will vote in the election.

Unfortunately for Romney, these displays have been largely unsuccessful. But why? One possible reason comes from research suggesting that a person's social class can be accurately signaled and perceived in social interactions. In that research (which I conducted at UC Berkeley with Dacher Keltner), university students with parents who varied in terms of their educational attainment and annual income engaged in video-recorded interactions. Some of the students came from wealthy families, earning upwards of $150,000 annually, whereas others had parents with only a high school education. We then showed these videos to a separate sample of untrained observers, whose task was simple: The observers were literally asked to guess the social class of participants based on this brief video-recorded interaction.

The results surprised us: Untrained observers watching only a 60s segment of video could judge the social class of the students' parents at greater-than-chance accuracy. In short, people's casual behavior during social interactions leaks information that can be used to infer social class.

Working-Class Hero? (source)
What does this mean for Romney's chances to appear as a member of the working class? In short, it means that even though Romney engages in some forms of impression management to appear like working class Americans, other aspects of his behavior leak information that he is, in fact, of elite status. For example, during his visit to Nascar, Romeny mentioned in passing that he loves Nascar because "many of my friends are Nascar team owners." As a second example, at one of the primary debates Romeny offered to engage fellow candidate Rick Perry in a gentleman's wager of $10,000 (yes, you read that right). These are a couple of examples that show how Romeny's upper-class status can sometimes leak out in his behavior. 

Will Romney be able to convey a public persona that does not alienate him from the average American voter as Super Tuesday approaches? Well, our research suggests that he has an uphill battle ahead of him. I'd love to read your comments about the 2012 Presidential election, and about this research! 

A previous version of this article appeared on Psychology Today blog: Under the Influence.

Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of Socioeconomic Status: A Thin-Slicing Approach Psychological Science, 20 (1), 99-106 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02251.x


  1. I think you're absolutely right, and I think his attempts to appear like the rest of "us" have kind of backfired, turning off the very people he's trying to woo. We can tell it's an act. It's sort of the inverse of if I were to try and walk into a real-life downton abbey with a fake English accent; they would see through me pretty quick. For example, the photo. Who would do their laundry in a tucked-in button down white shirt and use a travel size package of detergent. Is he in a hotel? Just doesn't make sense.

    1. Thanks for the comment James! Indeed, it's not clear that the laundry photo really does for Romney what he intends.

      There is a very interesting study on vocal signaling of status that speaks to your point above(though not accents). In it, Larry King tends to change his vocal depth to be more similar to high status interviewees (e.g., Presidents). In contrast, low status interviewees change their vocal depth to be more in line with Larry. Thanks for reading!