After Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for President was defeated last November, British political prognosticators predicted that the result was a good omen for David Cameron and a warning for his opposite number on the Labour benches, Ed Miliband.
They are wrong.
It’s easy to see why the experts made such a mistake. After all, President Obama won reelection with unemployment hovering at 8% - something no occupant of the White House has ever done before (the closest was Ronald Reagan, who was reelected in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2%). Obama won in spite of the gridlock paralyzing Washington (for which he is largely responsible), contempt for politicians at record levels, and smoldering resentment over his reform of the American healthcare system.
President Obama also won despite his opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, effectively stealing the mantle of change.
Such similarities to the political situation in the UK will not have gone unnoticed by Tory High Command. That's why, on the surface, President Obama's reelection is delightful news for Cameron. Even now, perhaps, advice is being poured into the Prime Minister's ear, urging him to follow the path blazed by the President. To win a reelection campaign of his own, all David Cameron need do is remind voters of the mess he inherited, emphasize the indicators which point to an economic recovery, and expose his opponents glaring shortcomings. Follow the Obama recipe, and another 5 years in Downing Street beckon.
But a close look at exit polling should have Conservatives nervous. It shows that Mitt Romney lost for exactly the same reasons that have damaged British Tories generally, and David Cameron in particular.
The Fox News exit poll showed that by a margin of ten points, voters thought Obama was “more in touch with people like me.” By a whopping 81-18 margin people believed President Obama to be the more empathetic candidate. Governor Romney did win majorities of voters who wanted “a vision for the future” (54-45) and “a candidate who shares my values” (55-42), but was undone by the fact that so many voters believed his policies would favor the rich, effectively neutralizing his greatest strength: that he was the candidate best equipped to turn around America's faltering economy.
Thus was Romney's campaign was undone. Much has been written about the changing demographics of America – a worthy topic – but the bottom line remains that people will not vote for a candidate they do not like, irrespective of the colour of their skin. President Obama had a favorability rating of +7, while Gov. Romney, suffering from millions of dollars’ worth of unanswered attack ads, had a negative favorability rating of -3.
In the UK, there are chilling similarities to Gov. Romney's position and David Cameron's, though the Prime Minister does outperform the Republican in some crucial polling questions.
An Ipsos-Mori poll published just before party conference season in September shows Cameron trailing by ten points on the issue of who “represents people like me.” And he clings to a tiny two-point led when voters are asked to choose who “has the right values.”
There is good news for Mr. Cameron in the poll: by healthy margins he beats out Mr. Miliband when voters are asked who is more “Prime Ministerial,” “likeable,” and “a good person,” although Mr. Miliband does win on the question of “who will protect British jobs.”
The Prime Minister therefore is not in as near a bad a position as Gov. Romney, but his polling numbers show they both share the same problems as a candidate: people doubt their values, and question both their privilege, and their commitment to jobs for the middle class.
The similarities between Romney and Cameron go beyond mere polling. Both come from what most people would agree is “the 1%.” Their upbringings encompassed the very best schools and colleges, and they enjoy enormous wealth beyond the means of most families. Hence why Mr. Cameron is so sensitive to attacks upon his background: deep down, he fears they may actually work. The polling shows he is correct to hold such fears.
Mitt Romney's candidacy fell victim to attacks on his character and background which he inexplicably failed to rebut until the last few weeks of the campaign. David Cameron, a far better politician, knows to insulate himself against charges that his policies favor the rich and that he is out of touch. Hence the statement, trotted out by his front bench team, that “we are all in this together,” and the Prime Minister's reluctance to lower the top rate of income tax during the negotiations over last year’s budget.
But these solutions are only temporary. What is the answer to the long-term problem that people incorrectly associate right-of-center parties with policies that favor the elite? After all, it is parties of the left that have destroyed state-education in their craven worship of the teaching unions, thus harming the life-chances of those from the middle class. And it was left-wing politicians who allowed giant corporations like GE, Apple, and Google to pay obscenely low levels of tax, foisting the tax-burden instead on middle class families not as well connected as the CEOs of leading multinationals.
As in so much in politics, there is no easy solution. But there is cause for optimism: the Republican Party is hungry for power, and its hunger will compel it to confront the problems which beset the Romney candidacy. Already the conservative media is abuzz with suggestions on how to improve the standing of the GOP. Tories, with the election of 2015 inching closer, should pay close heed. After all, true leaders do not shed their ideology and flee to the middle ground for safety; they bring the middle ground to them.
Dan Whitfield is a writer living in Washington, DC, specializing in the conservative routes of America’s founding. Previously Dan worked for the Leadership Institute, America’s largest training organization for conservative activists.