Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
By design, presidential contenders face the significant challenge of cobbling and holding together constituencies of enormous diversity. Uniting Main Street and Wall Street, religious and secular, farm and factory has always posed problems for candidates, now compounded by the inability to confine stump speeches to particular groups. Campaigns have to imagine that what they say to the religious will be heard by the secular, and so on. The trick is to convey a message such that only the target group truly understands it – coded communication. For instance, would all Americans understand that a “welcoming” congregation means it is accepting of gays and lesbians or that “inner city” is another way of saying “black”? A survey experiment from PRRI conducted in May 2012delves into this complicated terrain, helping to assess just who holds views that Mitt Romney’s campaign may be attempting to activate.
In the past two weeks, the Romney campaign has focused its attention on attacking the foreign policy of the Obama administration. According to Governor Romney or his surrogates, President Obama has been weak in the face of America’s greatest threats (like China, Russia, and Iran), he has “leaked” state secrets (in the capture of Osama bin Laden), and he has been too proud in his accomplishments (again, regarding bin Laden).
But the framing of the attacks also carries another important theme that is less about foreign policy and is being reprised from Obama’s first presidential run – that he is un-American. In an interview with the British paper The Daily Telegraph, anonymous Romney advisors suggested that Romney shares an “Anglo-Saxon” heritage with the UK that Obama lacks. Another advisor offered about Obama that, “He’s very comfortable with American decline and the traditional alliances don’t mean as much to him. He wouldn’t like singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’” (a British patriotic song asking God to “make thee mightier yet”). Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, another advisor, last week suggested that Obama should learn “to be an American,” a comment for which he has since apologized.
Given Romney’s extraordinary wealth, not to mention a religious background that some find unconventional, he needs to bridge a likely gap with his base and more generally with working class whites. He can either offer appealing policies or he can build common ground by creating an outgroup – a “they”. With this latest series of attacks, Romney appears to be taking the latter path. Though triggering group boundaries is a common tactic for campaigns (recall the “99%”?), this specific strategy has long been known as the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy.” In that strategy, poor whites would be encouraged to vote Republican by keeping the image of the Democrats as the party of black Americans in the forefront of their minds. The issue of busing, the image of welfare queens, and the use of “state’s rights” all were coded communications in service of the Southern Strategy.
In PRRI’s “list experiment,” survey respondents were offered a list of reasons some people say for not supporting Obama. They were instructed to tell the interviewer how many reasons they agreed with, not which ones. This procedure gives people with controversial opinions cover from revealing themselves in public. Half of the respondents were offered the first 3 reasons, while half were presented with all 4:
1—His political views are too liberal
2—He’s not a strong leader
3—He doesn’t believe in the principles of capitalism
4—He doesn’t understand the problems of white Americans
Since the two half samples are statistically equivalent, the difference between their mean scores of how many reasons they agreed with gives us an estimate of how many people in the population believe the racially charged 4th reason. The attached figure shows the results for the total sample as well as a variety of important groups in this election. The percentage after the group name is an estimate of the percent who agree that “[Obama] doesn’t understand the problems of white Americans.”
Twenty-five percent of the sample is estimated to believe this statement, though support for it is concentrated in particular subgroups. It is no surprise that strong majorities of Republicans (83%), Southern whites (59%), and evangelical Protestants (58%) are estimated to take this view. Tellingly, these are just the constituents with whom Romney has had problems connecting with and firing up, especially after a bruising, divisive primary season in which these groups tended to back other candidates. Indeed, Romney has been found to suffer an enthusiasm gap, with about 15 percent fewer likely supporters feeling enthusiastic about him than Obama’s core supporters according to a January 2012 PRRI survey.
Coded communication is nothing new in American campaigns as I and my coauthor Brian Calfano have found, nor is the tussle to redraw group boundaries that are more advantageous to one side. Policy debates are often carried out on several levels with text and subtext as candidates attempt to persuade new voters as well as mobilize components of their base. This particular one seems very likely to be the Romney campaign attempting to shore up a crucial part of its base as we race toward the general election.