The 'those-who-know-him-best' factor

Oct 7, 2012 By Mark Shields

In 1976, with voters still fuming over the Watergate scandals and Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, President Ford faced a tough uphill fight against a newcomer with anti-Washington credentials, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

I remember a TV ad the Ford campaign's brilliant media team of Doug Bailey and the late John Deardourff crafted to plant doubts about the not-well-known Democratic nominee:

"Those who know Jimmy Carter best are from Georgia. That's why we thought you ought to know ..." And what followed was the viewers seeing on-screen and hearing a voice read a scroll of Georgia newspapers such as the Savannah News, the Augusta Herald and the Marietta Journal, with the announcer adding for each, '... endorses President Ford."

The argument was uncomplicated. If the candidate's neighbors and friends who have know him the longest have doubts about him, then maybe I, as a voter, ought to have a few second thoughts.

That Ford ad, not surprisingly, had no influence on Georgia voters, some 67 percent of whom voted that November for favorite son Carter. In fact, most presidential nominees, perhaps aided by hometown pride, do carry their home states -- or at the very least run better there than they do nationally.

In 2008, John McCain won Arizona, just as Barack Obama carried Illinois and Hawaii. In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale, who lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan, still won Minnesota, his home state.

Two exceptions do come to mind. In 1972, Democrat George McGovern won just over 37 percent of the national vote against Richard Nixon and also lost 49 states, including his home state of South Dakota, where the Democrat ran eight points better than he did nationally. In 2000, Al Gore by 4 percent of the vote lost his home state of Tennessee -- and, with it, the White House -- to George W. Bush.

The last candidate to win the White House while losing his home state was President Woodrow Wilson, who despite being re-elected failed to carry New Jersey.

Why all this could be relevant in 2012 is contained in the most recent Suffolk University poll (the same poll that in 2010 accurately forecast Republican Scott Brown's upset win to succeed Ted Kennedy in the Senate) of voters in Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney has lived for 40 years and where he served as governor from 2003 until 2007. True, Massachusetts is a deep blue state, but Romney, according to the survey, trails Barack Obama among likely voters by a landslide 64 percent to 31 percent.

Democratic partisanship cannot fully explain why, when asked to rate Mitt Romney personally, just 32 percent of his home state electorate judges him favorably and some 60 percent of voters judge Romney unfavorably.

No presidential nominee in U.S. history has ever risked receiving such a cold shoulder on Election Day from, to paraphrase the 1976 Ford campaign, "those who know him best."

Mitt Romney is smart, successful and exceptionally well-educated. He is by all reports a really good husband, father, grandfather and friend. He is handsome and well-spoken, not completely unimportant factors. Yet in the most recent Pew Research national survey, when voters were asked "which presidential candidate connects well with ordinary Americans," 66 percent named Obama and just 23 percent said Romney.

One possible explanation comes from a Republican friend who compares the current campaign to an old advertising story. In an effort to corner the U.S. dog food market, a pet food CEO assembled a team of the world's best canine nutritionists to develop the new dish and deployed the most brilliant packaging people to present the new product.

He hired a crack advertising team, which created a dog food jingle half the nation was humming, and using the best sales force, got the new dog food the best shelf placement in U.S. supermarkets. Sales of the new dog food were abysmal.

Nobody could explain why. The angry manufacturer was disbelieving, until his secretary leveled with him:

"The dogs don't like the dog food."

That may be one explanation.


Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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