Amy Levin: If it wasn’t already, presidential politicking has stooped a little low. Curiously, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign informed Politico of their strategy to re-elect the “hopeful” incumbent: to make Mitt Romney seem. . . weird. Due to his fairly low approval ratings, the Obama’s campaign strategists are betting on a victory at the expense of throwing his most likely opponent under the rug. According to writers Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin,
The onslaught would have two aspects. The first is personal: Obama’s reelection campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird.”
This weirdness “quotient” is “the sum of awkward public encounters and famous off-kilter anecdotes, first among them the tale of Romney having strapped his dog to the roof of his car.” The second political weapon Democrat campaigners will use is Romney’s business strategies while he was CEO of Bain Capital, framing him as the “very picture of greed in the great recession.”
The strategy of the “onslaught” has a historical precedent. In the 2004 presidential election, Republican campaign strategists pitted Bush’s stubbornness, a.k.a “firmness,” against John Kerry’s “flip-flopping.” Similarly, Obama’s team will portray him as principled, and “voters can expect to see a portrait of a president making the difficult decisions in tough times set against an opponent they’ll claim has bent, like the windsurfing Kerry, with the breeze.”
Aside from polarizing strategies, it seems that the attack on Romney’s “weirdness” is a bit strange itself. While possible animal cruelty and questionable business strategies may be warranted, some question what this attack on personality means, tying it to Romney’s most popular identifier, his Mormonism.
Smith and Martin admit that while none of Obama’s advisers explicitly connected Romney’s qualities to his faith, “the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent’s supporters.”
Indeed, as NY Times op-ed author Ross Douthat points out, recent polls tell us that its not only evangelicals irked by Romney’s faith. A June 2011 Gallup Poll found that while 18 percent of Republicans were unwilling to vote for a Mormon candidate, the number increased to 19 percent for Independents, and 27 percent among Democrats. That same month, a Quinnipiac Poll found that 36 percent of voters described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “entirely uncomfortable” with a Mormon presidential candidate.
Douthat is quite useful to help explain where we might find these Mormon skeptics:
Well, their ranks probably include a lot of theologically conservative/politically liberal Christians (mainly African American and Hispanic) who regard Mormonism as a dangerous heresy, and a lot of secular liberals who dislike the L.D.S.’s positions (and politicking) on issues like gay marriage. But most likely some of them are people who don’t have a particular theological or political ax to grind, who know Mormonism primarily through pop culture (from “Big Love” and “Sister Wives” to “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon”) and the occasional encounter with bicycling missionaries, and who have a vague sense of the L.D.S. church as little bit cultish, a little bit outside-the-mainstream, and a little bit, well, weird. Presumably the Obama campaign sees this half-formed attitude as the fertile ground in which its “Romney the weirdo” seeds will take root and grow.
Douthat claims that we have better things to worry about, like, for example, the economy, and that “trying to sow doubts about Romney’s faith will just make the Democrats look out of touch.” So are the Democrats “out of touch” by playing the religion card? Are we jumping the holy gun by assuming Romney’s “weirdness” is a euphemism for his Mormonism, and that voters understand the linguistic code? We don’t have to look that far back for answers. After all, the same team teetering on religious intolerance fought four years earlier to eschew the stereotype that Obama was Muslim. And yet, the example isn’t completely parallel or predictive. The identity politics attached to Obama-as-Muslim evoke more of a terrorist, unpatriotic persona than the mildly awkward weirdness element tied to Romney-as-Mormon. But, while it may be too soon to know how Romney’s faith will influence the electorate, we know that, at least in this race, President-as-religion matters.