Authenticity – It’s the Real Thing

5 Mar

Mitt Romney re-entered political life this week and immediately provided a useful reminder.  Whether conservative or liberal, all voters need a sense of the real person behind the political soundbites.    


This blog will not become political.  But politics is very instructive when it comes to messaging.  The mini-brouhaha Mitt Romney caused over the weekend in trying to explain his “47%” comment illustrates why a politician’s inability to be authentic in his messaging can be deadly to his success.

Politics is about people.  The reason we elect representatives is because we don’t have the time or skill to dive into every policy issue ourselves, so we ask other people to represent us.  The criteria we use to choose those representatives varies widely.  But ultimately, what almost every voter wants – in fact needs – is to believe that the individual they send to a city council, a state legislature, Congress or the White House, will represent some portion of their interests.

Sure, politicians will break promises.  But the question voters ask is – do I have a basic understanding of how this person will act on my behalf?  Do I feel I know what this person will do for me?

The last three elected Presidents – Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama – all found a way to resonate with voters by showing voters a real part of themselves as people.  Clinton empathized and projected a message that he understood your pain.  Bush saw eye-to-eye with the common Joe and could make solid decisions based on good instincts.  Obama was both the embodiment of the American Dream, and also the preacher that made you want to believe and to be part of the “change” that was coming.

By contrast, Romney falls into the same camp as Gore and Kerry, where the image each tried to convey could not be reconciled with the unintentional messaging each candidate actually projected.  In Romney’s case, he was a moderate governor of Massachusetts but also a “true” conservative, a Mormon but also a holder of traditional Christian values, a creator of universal health care in Massachusetts but also an opponent of the federal government extending the exact same program nationwide.  As a conservative columnist recently wrote about Romney, “he would have said almost anything to win.”  And then throw in the fact that he simply could not relate to everyday people (think Nascar owners, Binders full of women, and the dog-on-the-roof), and it is not hard to see the challenge Romney faced getting elected.

This weekend, he tried to re-launch himself into political life with an interview on Fox News.  It backfired in part because, again, Romney could not explain how his private comments (about 47% of Americans being “victims”) jibed with his public position.  He said about the 47% comment, “What I said is not what I believe.”  The New York Times reporter who followed Romney on the campaign trail tweeted that this comment “epitomiz[ed]” his campaign problems.  It reinforced the idea that he would say anything to win.

It was actually worse than just that, though.  Romney prefaced that already-damning  “What I said is not what I believe” comment by saying “when you speak in private, you don’t spend as much time thinking about how something could be twisted and distorted…”  This suggests that Romney perhaps did mean what he said, he just hadn’t thought about it too carefully.

So it’s unclear whether Romney: (1) believed the 47% comment and later lied to the public about not believing it; or, (2) didn’t believe the comment at all and was lying at the time he made the private speech.

Whatever Romney meant, he lost the election because he simply did not convince enough people that they knew the real Romney and could trust him to represent them.  Undoubtedly, national politicians face a Herculean task of holding together a coalition of often competing political interests, all for the sake of getting elected.  But perhaps for that very reason, voters need to find some identifiable personal values in their candidates to guide their ballot box decisions.

In Romney’s case, the lack of authenticity created doubts in too many people’s minds.  No-one, apparently including Romney himself, knew whether he believed that 47% comment or not.

PS.  Next post will be about my trip to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business – I was asked to help several groups of students with their presentations, and I learned a lot from this experience that I’d like to share.


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