There was a lot of attention over the weekend to the remarks Mitt Romney made at a fundraiser in which he let slip some details about which government programs he might cut to fund his tax-cut plans. But at least an equally revealing comment was an insight into his media strategy as the general election begins: Fox News, he told his donors, was watched by “true believers,” and if he wants to win, he will need to reach out to other media outlets and thus other voters. “We need to get the independents and women,” he said.
Cut to Monday night, and Romney, and his wife Ann, sitting down with ABC anchor Diane Sawyer for the first network-evening-news interview of the all-but-official-nominee phase of his campaign. Or rather “their” campaign, as Sawyer phrased it in the introduction, as they prepared for a general election “facing President and Mrs. Obama.” It was a telling bit of phrasing that should clue you in on the other motives behind the interview, and where and how Romney was doing it.
For starters, there’s the “likeability gap”–a deficit measured, most recently, in an ABC / Washington Post poll that showed respondents found President Obama more likeable than Romney by more than 2 to 1. And there’s the gender gap, which appeared again most recently in a CNN poll that showed Obama leading him by 16 points among women (and nine overall).
One way a politician presents a human, likeable face is to appear on TV (in this case, at a ballgame at Fenway Park) with his spouse, the person who once chose him for reasons other than electability. As to whether women are more likely to support a politician because they like his wife than because of his policies—well, I’ll let the female folk in the audience be the judges of that, but the Romney camp certainly worked overtime to make a national issue of the comments by a Democratic strategist that stay-at-home mom Ann had “never worked a day in her life.” And I would have to guess that the choice of the one female anchor among the big three for Mitt’s interview at this juncture in time was more than coincidental.
If what Romney wanted was a personal sit-down to put a human face on the gleaming electoral chassis he presents, Sawyer gave him that, and how. It wasn’t an unchallenging interview, but the sections ABC picked for its evening news were heavy on the personal and light on the politics: was Romney “too rich to relate?” Is he willing to talk about being a Mormon? Would he do Saturday Night Live? Is he funnier than Barack Obama?
So about that likeability: Romney is probably never going to be the sort of politician known for his natural glad-handing charisma, but he may not need that. What may be good enough for him, and what he seems to be aiming for, is the kind of genial, just-likeable-enough affability of George H. W. Bush. Romney can actually be dry and self-deprecating in one-on-ones, but he often comes off overprepared. Even in this “humanizing” interview, he seemed to work at being natural. Here’s Romney talking about being funny: “people don’t me terribly well from the– you know, the kinds of pranks we play and what’s like in a home with five boys. But most of our dinner table– events were– involving humor of one kind or another most of which can’t be repeated on the air.” Involving humor of one kind or another. That response almost involved everyday speech!
In the World News excerpts, anyway, Ann Romney actually took the lead, again something the campaign has been trying to use her for: Sawyer drew her out on the stay-at-home-momtroversy, her own off-the-record comments that the brouhaha was an early birthday present and her husband’s political aims (“I think it’s our turn”).
Of course, most of us can find enough friends of our own without expecting the Democratic or Republican party to nominate one for us. Shouldn’t ABC News be more interested in asking, you know, what Romney would actually specifically do as President? It did, sort of: Sawyer asked some questions about Romney’s positions on abortion and Afghanistan (see the full transcript), not that they elicited surprising answers. But to see them—as well as another question about Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car—you had to watch Nightline. As far as ABC’s evening news was concerned, the political last night was entirely personal.
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