Mitt Romney, Impression Formation, and Social Class

How Romney's behavior alienates working-class voters

Posted Feb 28, 2012

During a US Presidential campaign it is common practice for a candidate to engage in some form of impression management. For instance, in 2008 many media outlets thought John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a Vice Presidential candidate was a move to boost McCain's image as a "Maverick" candidate. For similar reasons, Bill Clinton played saxophone live on the Arsenio Hall Show during the 1992 campaign. In these examples, candidates tend to create public personas that convey their similarity to average Americans (who tended to be younger, less wealthy/educated, and hipper than the candidates themselves).

This practice is still true in the 2012 US Presidential election: Candidates attempt to manage their public persona, to appear similar to the younger, working/middle class Americans that make up a majority of the voters in the election. Importantly, given that the country is just starting to recover from an economic recession, it is critical for candidates to appear that they understand and empathize with the average working-class American.

The Republican Presidential hopefuls have varied widely in their ability to convey their understanding for working-class Americans. Perhaps the most successful candidate has been Ron Paul: One of the pillars of Paul's campaign has been putting an end to government practices that favor the elite. The least successful in my view has been Mitt Romney. 

It's not that Mitt Romney hasn't tried to appear to understand working class Americans. Actually, he has tried very hard to convince people of his understanding of the average American family. For instance, last weekend Romney was at the Daytona 500, mingling with working class Americans. A few months ago, Romney was photographed doing his own laundry, a move signaling that he engages in many of the everyday practices of the average American. Romney also has donned modest clothing, in an apparant attempt to look more similar to the working class Americans that will vote in the election.

Unfortunately for Romney, these displays have been largely unsuccessful. One of the reasons this might be the case comes from research suggesting that a person's social class can be signaled and perceived in social interactions. In that research (I conducted at UC Berkeley with Dacher Keltner), university students with parents who varied in terms of their educational attainment and annual income engaged in video-recorded interactions. Some of the students came from wealthy families, earning upwards of $150,000 annually, whereas others had parents with only a high school education. We then showed these videos to a separate sample of untrained observers, whose task was simple: They were literally asked to guess the social class of participants based on this brief video-recorded interaction.

The results surprised us: Untrained observers watching only a 60s segment of video could judge the social class of the students' parents at greater-than-chance accuracy. In short, people's casual behavior during social interactions leaks information that can be used to infer social class.

So what does this mean for Romney's chances to appear as a member of the working class? In short, it means that even though Romney engages in some forms of impression management to appear like working class Americans, other aspects of his behavior leak information that he is, in fact, of elite social class status. For example, during his visit to Nascar, Romeny mentioned in passing that he loves Nascar because "many of my friends are Nascar team owners." As a second example, at one of the primary debates Romeny offered to engage fellow candidate Rick Perry in a gentleman's wager of $10,000. These are a couple of examples that show how Romeny's elite status can sometimes leak out in his behavior. Will Romeny be able to convey a public persona that does not alienate him from the average American voter in this election? Well, our research suggests that he has an uphill battle ahead of him.

I'd love to read your comments about the 2012 Presidential election, and about this research! Also, you can follow me on twitter @mwkraus!

Reference

Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of Socioeconomic Status: A Thin-Slicing Approach, Psychological Science, 20, 99-106.