The concept of “authenticity” is overused in these days of avatars, 140 character sound bytes, and reality television. But the idea has not gone — and may never go — out of style: we crave authentic leaders. Across all sectors, leaders whose values and actions align with their articulated life story are time and again rewarded with devoted followers.
So what’s Mitt Romney’s story?
Much has been published in the past two weeks about Romney’s inability or calculated unwillingness to be genuine or forthcoming about his life story, from his sealed lips surrounding his core religious values to his damaging instinct to be that which others wish of him. The result is an “excitement deficit” for his candidacy.
I’ll not soon forget the scene in a Colorado Springs high school classroom on the night of the Colorado caucus, when voters were asked to to speak on behalf of their preferred candidate. The precinct captain invited supporters of Mitt Romney to stand and address the room. No one stirred. Not one. There was no sign of support, let alone excitement.
And no wonder.
How can you get excited about someone you don’t know?
People can’t, and the numbers bear this out.
To start, let’s look at the results of Republican caucuses, which tend to draw the most enthusiastic members of a party. In the five states that have caucused so far this year, Romney’s total number of votes in 2012 decreased from his votes in 2008, even though he is the frontrunner this year. In Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine, Romney saw a decrease in voter support of between roughly 22 – 69% from his numbers in the 2008 primaries. Yes, Romney held on to his win in Maine (unlike the embarrassment of Iowa), but given that his Maine vote total is far less than the total he won in 2008, it’s a less-than-overwhelming victory.
Furthermore, according to Talking Points Memo Polltracker, starting January 12 — just after the GOP primary had begun in earnest — Romney’s favorable/unfavorable ratings have diverged wildly, with as of February 14 an unfavorable rating of nearly 50%, and a favorable rating of 30%, down from a high in early January of almost 44%.
So why the nose dive?
If voters don’t feel they know you, they don’t trust you. Remember, we want a President who makes for good company over a few cold beers.
So far, Romney has been clumsy as he stumps for votes, gaining a reputation for sometimes awkward banter contrasted with a short fuse that was on display when he interviewed with FOX news anchor Bret Baier. But Romney is between a rock and a hard place. There are threads to his life story that don’t play as well to the GOP base: a father born in Mexico, his time in France, a former governor of one of the bluest states in the nation. That said, attempts to distance himself from these parts of his identity ultimately just fuel the perception of cipher or his insincerity.
But more than sociability, voters want to know where candidates stand, and what they stand for. Romney has faced a skeptical Republican base who question his conservative credentials and his plans for the highest office of the land. Add this to the fact that compared to the unabashed, going-down-with-the-ship “what you see is what you get” that Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich espouse and back up with track records, Romney struggles by comparison.
Finally, take a look at this video of Mitt Romney from the time of the 2004 presidential campaign, when he was governor of Massachusetts and John Kerry was the Democratic Party nominee. Pay special attention at the 1:47 mark.
Hear this line?
“He is very conflicted and drawn in two very different directions,” Romney says about Kerry, “He is with an audience that he wants to identify with, to satisfy that audience, so he says what they want to hear.”
Fast forward eight years and Romney could easily be describing himself.
Leadership guru and author Stephen Covey — an influential Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints figure like Romney– coined the concept of “true north” in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The term refers to core values and convictions that help guide an individual on their leadership journey. An internal compass, if you will.
Right now, Romney is charting a course that is less steered by his essential beliefs, and is instead sadly far too much under the influence of others. In trying to please a spectrum of GOP faithful, he has diminished his image of a strong sense of self, perhaps irreparably.
Over 40 years ago, when Romney was a rising star undergraduate at Brigham Young University, he invited Covey, also just at the onset of his career, to address a fundraising club he had joined on campus. The club raised $100,000 for BYU in twelve months. He’d do well to dust off his copy of Covey’s runaway bestseller — I’d bet a bundle of delegates he’s got a signed dog-eared copy — and right his ship.
Time to be yourself, Mitt. Everyone else is taken.
David Domke contributed to this report.