Roughly around this time in 2008, a bunch of celebrities got together to put the words of an Obama campaign speech to music. The result, four and a half minutes of doe-eyed tribute from will.i.am, Scarlett Johansson et al., was a viral hit on YouTube. “Yes We Can” captured the kind of vague hope-iness that defined Obama’s pop image at the time. And even though his policies weren’t very different from Hillary Clinton’s, the half-term Senator entered the general election a transformational figure in the eyes of many casual political observers. Even the late night send-ups were all about how much people (and the press) loved Obama. John McCain later tried to turn this against him with the famous Paris Hilton ad, but it’s hard to argue that Obama’s celebrity was a handicap.
Four years later and Mitt Romney’s place in pop culture is beginning to look like just that.
It might come as a surprise to anyone who’s currently reading this, but most Americans don’t follow presidential primaries very closely. There’s a general awareness sure, but only the diehards tune in to daily minutiae in March. That’s not to say the early action has no effect–the latest NBC/WSJ poll definitely shows an American public that’s downwind of some kind of unpleasant primary odor: 69% used a negative phrase to describe the contest. But not too many day-to-day specifics have made it into mainstream consciousness just yet. Unfortunately for Romney, the caricature of him as an aloof corporatist really has.
Saturday Night Live just opened with a skit in which Romney says “I’m happier than a poor man eating a can of beans from a dumpster.” Mad Magazine is running a bit called “Who Said It? Mitt Romney or Mr. Burns,” the miserly finger-tenting nuclear baron from The Simpsons.
This isn’t the stuff that swings elections, but it’s not helpful. In the NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s current favorable/unfavorable rating of 28%/39% is worse than John McCain’s, John Kerry’s and Bob Dole’s at similar points in recent presidential primaries. And Romney’s string of wealth gaffes have clearly done more than earn him clucking headlines in Politico. It’s entered America’s bloodstream. People laugh about it because they know about it. And at this early point, it risks being one of the few things that some Americans know him for.