In mid-September, left-leaning political magazine Mother Jones released a leaked video of presidential candidate Mitt Romney declaiming to a crowd at a private fund-raising event. In the video, Romney could be heard dismissing “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.” He went on to characterize the group as “people who pay no income tax,” and
who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
The lifespan of a political gaffe rarely extends beyond the news cycle, but two weeks after the video began to make the rounds, Romney’s “47% comments” continue to dog his campaign. As recently as yesterday, running-mate Paul Ryan called the statement a “misstep,” one of the campaign’s first acknowledgements of the damage done by the story. It will likely figure prominently in the upcoming presidential debates.
Reactions have fallen predictably along party lines. Democrats were practically gleeful about the leak. Republicans mostly shrugged. One explanation was that few Republicans count themselves among the 47% that Romney cited, even when they fit the criteria. Much the same thing happened with Obama’s less guarded comments in the 2008 election, like his association with outspoken minister Jeremiah Wright or his comment about voters who “cling to guns and religion.” Candid glimpses and apparent gaffes that drove Republicans into a veritable frenzy bounced neatly off of the Democratic id.
Another explanation is simply that partisans are generally less interested in the private person representing their party than they are in the hidden life of the opposition. When it comes to their own candidate, what’s of real interest to supporters is the candidate’s suitability as figurehead for the party. So while Democrats and Independents are busy with Romney the Man, looking for indications of his supposed disdain for everyone in a lower tax bracket, Republicans are focused instead on Romney the Campaign and its fidelity to the party line.
Both of those explanations focus on the usual tug-of-war between segments of the population divided according to political persuasion. There is, however, another opposition that casts the episode, and most episodes like it, in a more revealing light.
The creation of illusion has long been the goal of political campaigns. Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore recently traced the origins of the modern archetype of campaign illusionists, the political consultant. It might not overstate the case to say that political consultants are in the business not of consulting, but of manufacturing. Their job is to manufacture the right picture of their candidate—or, rather, a multitude of smaller pictures, each one the right picture for that particular moment. Taken altogether, those miniatures should, like a portrait by Chuck Close, produce enough unity to resemble a person.
We are mostly aware that our perceptions of political candidates are shaped by a process of media manufacture. That awareness explains the hunger with which political trainspotters pounce on every gaffe and gotcha, as well as on a leak like Romney’s 47% speech. Beyond even the partisan desire to see an opposing candidate stumble, there is a legitimate need to see beyond the illusion. Without some peek behind the curtain, we are left to wonder whether there is any true connection between the four-year political situation into which we have voted ourselves, and the profiles on which we staked that vote.
That’s why the amateurism of the Romney video exercises so much appeal. Shot with a camera phone from its hiding place on a banquet table, the video recommends itself as a candid, unguarded view. The very framing of the shot suggests that it has opened a breach in the composite picture the campaign is struggling to present.
In doing so, it also suggests the adversarial relationship between voters and the campaigns built to sway them, wherein political consultants strive to control the messaging around their candidates while voters struggle to break through the polished veneer. The development of personal communications technology, like video-equipped smartphones, has shifted the dynamic of that relationship.
Yet it would be facile to present this as conflict between new media and old. Piecemeal elements of the video had been available for months prior to its presentation on Mother Jones, but only the compiled version (assembled, it turns out, by a grandson of Jimmy Carter) managed to set off a firestorm of criticism. Despite the conflicted status of traditional media in the modern political arena—in the same month, Vanity Fair‘s Michael Lewis stirred controversy over the relationship of the press to candidates with an article that ceded final approval for quote to the Obama administration—the Mother Jones video illustrates the role traditional outlets continue to play on both sides in the conflict. Only now they do so with the resources and extended reach of social media.