Romney, Kerry, and Gore are all, in a way, versions of the same political type. Statuesque, handsome, from privileged backgrounds and impeccably credentialed, they have no log-cabin stories to humanize and ground them. Unlike a Lyndon Johnson, a Richard Nixon, a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton, or a Barack Obama, they didn’t overcome humble origins or broken families. Romney’s background is alien to most Americans not because he descends from polygamists but because his father was a governor of Michigan, an automobile company CEO, and a presidential candidate.
In his attempt to overcome his privileged origins, the unloved candidate struggles to establish his plain-folks ordinariness in ways that inevitably backfire. He touts his plebian tastes—pick-up trucks, country music, trashy food—and inevitably overdoes it or gets the background music wrong. Al Gore’s attempt to look less like a Washington politician yielded the “earth tones” fiasco. John Kerry asked for his Philly cheesesteak with Swiss cheese, and was photographed nibbling at this alien object rather than tucking in, as one does. Romney defended his claims as a sportsman by asserting that he had gone out hunting for rodents and varmints “more than two times.”
The public usually picks up on this authenticity gap—the space between who the candidate really is and how he wants to be seen. In each case, the problem manifests itself in a slight different way. A technocrat by nature, Gore disliked the performative side of politics. He wildly overcompensated for this by angrily shouting his speeches at rallies and demonstrating ardor for his now ex-wife with a soul kiss at the Democratic convention. His hyperbolic passion on the campaign trail made it a simple matter for Republicans to brand Gore as a compulsive exaggerator who claimed to have invented the Internet. Kerry’s problem was that he was pompous, too senatorial, and loved of the sound of his own voice. This allowed the Bush re-election campaign in 2004 to paint him Kerry as “French”: an effete snob and an unprincipled flip-flopper.