Mitt Romney's biggest challenge in the weeks leading up to Election Day is to persuade voters that he's likeable and trustworthy. But that may depend more on voters' perception than who Romney actually is.
[Photos: First Day of GOP Convention Cut Short]
A bit of hagiography will be part of the script at this week's Republican National Convention, as the GOP attempts to soften Romney's image as a corporate raider mainly looking out for the one percent. There will be testimonials to his generosity and community involvement. Romney's wife, Ann, will tell the world about the thoughtful husband and devoted father we barely know. Video showing Romney flipping pancakes for the grandkids or describing his favorite items at Costco seems certain to keep popping up in features on the candidate.
But Romney has staked his whole candidacy on his experience as a business leader, and been unapologetically reluctant to emote in front of the cameras or reveal his hidden everyman (if he has a hidden everyman). So voters seem likely to evaluate Romney the way he has asked them to: as a businessman.
That's a risky strategy, because Americans view business leaders with much more skepticism than they used to. In the latest polls by Gallup, only 21 percent of Americans say they trust big business, which ranked third-lowest out of 16 institutions rated. (The military ranks best; Congress the worst). And trust in big business has fallen four percentage points from a historical average of 25 percent.
Trust in banks is at the same low level, except that has fallen from a historical average of 42 percent. Banks, in other words, have really blown it, going from respect to scorn in many Americans' eyes, largely because of exorbitant pay for their employees coupled with the 2008 financial meltdown. That's a problem for Romney because some people associate the firm he ran, Bain Capital, with the Wall Street banks that got bailouts during the recession—an impression Romney's opponent, President Barack Obama, is happy to reinforce. Even though Bain is a private-equity firm, not a bank—and it didn't get a bailout—the distinction may not matter much on the campaign trail.
There is one type of businessperson Americans still admire—the courageous underdog determined to build a startup into a powerhouse. In Gallup's polls, 63 percent of Americans say they trust small business, which ranks second as an institution. This may be why Romney frequently touts the startups that Bain helped nurture under Romney's watch, such as Staples, Sports Authority, and Bright Horizons, a child-care provider.
But Romney himself isn't a small-business owner, and he comes across as more of a starchy corporate guy than a gritty, self-made scrapper. Americans still have a place in their hearts for the occasional multimillionaire CEO, but it's reserved for people whose work touches them personally, such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple, or whose passion for their craft and for people feels tangible, such as Starbucks' Howard Schultz.
Staples and Sports Authority may be fine companies, but do they stir anybody's passion? Do you wish the United States were run more like an office-products company? Does America need a president whose experience mostly entails profit margins and return on investment?
The answer might actually be yes. It just seems like the wrong time to run as a business leader, since business of the sort Romney represents has fallen out of favor with Americans. At least pancakes are still popular.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.