Is Mitt Romney Concerned About Me?

Maybe its not about where you stand on the economic ladder.

Posted Feb 04, 2012

"I'm not concerned about the very poor..." What did Mitt Romney really mean when he said this and who is he talking about? While this supposed gaffe is getting a lot of attention, its an open question as to what effect such a comment will have on his chances of winning the Republican nomination and besting President Obama in November. Politicians and political junkies will no doubt debate this, probably ad nauseam, on cable channels and the like. Yet, psychologists who study new ways of thinking about diversity in teams may actually have a better answer to understanding the impact of such statements. Let's take a closer look at Romney's "poor" comment and what it means for Americans poor and not poor.

The first question: Exactly who are the poor that seemingly get little of Romney's concern? We might consider the official definition of poor in the US to include those living under the poverty line--in 2012 that includes, according to Census figures, some 46 million Americans. That's a lot of people; but to be fair, Romney explained he was focusing on the "90 to 95 percent of Americans" in the middle class. So, maybe he meant that the 5 percent he's unconcerned with includes people who get food stamps (that's actually about 12 percent of the country) or maybe the 2 percent that get all their food from food stamps. (I guess some of that 5 percent he isn't concerned with is upper 1 percent that gets most of the Occupy Movement's attention).

But the key point may not be what Romney meant, but how many people think they are in the group that he is unconcerned with (since presumably you wouldn't vote for someone who says they don't care about you, right?). Here's where diversity research, and in particular, recent work on demographic faultlines, comes into play. Faultline research studies how people identify themselves with multiple groups (I am a man/woman, republican/democrat, engineer/businessperson, poor/rich, and so on.). And which sets of identities are stronger for you, as various experimental and workplace studies have shown, determine behavior. My identity as professor might be something I think about more than my identity as a middle-income earner or woman, yet for other people other groups of identities may be more important. This concept is in fact critical for politicians: A low income earner might still support Romney (or another candidate) if their voting behavior depended more on their identity as a religious person or social conservative, even if they thought Romney didn't care about their lack of money.

And that's the key to the "I'm not concerned" statement. We also know that different faultlines, and the identifies on which they are based can be activated or made more salient by various events; in other words, our set of important identities can change over time. While surveys show most Americans do see themselves as "middle class," however it is defined, Romney's comment make one's economic class a primary identity. So, even if you weren't thinking (as much) about your income standing, a statement like Romney's may make you start thinking about it more. So congratulations Mr. Romney, you may have activated a faultline! Faultline research tell us that its not so much about where you stand on the economic ladder, but where you think you stand (and how much you think about it). And politicians who activate faultlines (and different types of identity) as much as they disparage "class warfare" may, ironically, contribute to it. (Possibly at their peril.)