TAMPA, Fla. — Two buzzwords are dominating the presidential campaign: middle class. In speeches, ads and interviews, both parties are saying virtually the same thing to this key audience: We’re your friends, and the other guys are not. The tagline for a commercial sponsored by a pro-Obama group could have been scripted by either party: “If they win, the middle class loses.”
Democrats demonize Mitt Romney as an economic elitist, a man born to wealth and privilege who doesn’t pay taxes, likes to fire people and wants, in Vice President Joe Biden’s unfortunate phrase, “to put y’all back in chains.”
Republicans depict Obama as a cultural elitist, the son of a foreigner (from Kenya) who spent his childhood in a foreign country (Indonesia), a closet socialist from Sin City (Chicago) who should, as former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu put it, “learn how to be an American.”
The stereotypes might be very different, but the message to the middle class is identical: The other guy is different from you. He doesn’t share your values and experiences. He doesn’t understand you.
So who has the edge? If you look at economics, the trend line favors Republicans, simply because they are not in power. A recent study by the Pew Research Center called the last 10 years “a lost decade for economic well-being” for the middle class. Median household income has fallen 5 percent, to about $69,500 a year. Family wealth has plunged even more sharply, by 28 percent.
The one question Democrats desperately don’t want middle-class voters to ask is: Are you better off than you were 10 — or four — years ago? It’s not surprising that in the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, voters favor Romney over Obama by 50 percent to 43 percent when it comes to handling the economy.
That’s why the Republicans have focused so intently on the argument that Romney knows how to create jobs and wealth, while the Democrats favor “job-killing” policies such as extended health-care benefits.
But if you view the choice through the lens of personality, not policy, the election looks very different. Asked which candidate favors the middle class, voters pick Obama by almost 2-to-1, 62 percent to 32 percent. The margin finding Obama more friendly and likable is even greater.
That’s why the president and his wife, Michelle, continue to tell stories about their humble origins. We recently finished paying off our student loans, they say. Barack’s mom depended on food stamps and struggled with health insurance bureaucrats. Michelle’s dad needed two canes to reach his job at the Chicago water department. We understand the middle class because we are middle class.
The Romneys are not middle class. And they know that’s a problem. That’s why Ann Romney tried so hard at the Republican National Convention here in Tampa to connect with ordinary folks, talking about the tuna and pasta she and Mitt ate as young marrieds and the ironing board they used for a kitchen table in their first basement apartment.
The campaign seems to get nastier by the day for two reasons. Polls show a dead heat, and the race is likely to stay extremely close. Moreover, both candidates are so deeply flawed that the only way either can win is to disqualify, even destroy, his opponent.
To do that, Republicans have focused recently on the issue of welfare. The president, they claim, is trying to “gut” the work requirements in “welfare reform” by allowing states to apply for waivers to innovate their own rules.
Anyone who covered Ronald Reagan’s campaign of 1980, as we did, immediately recognizes this strategy: Brand the Democrats as the party of “welfare queens” who take hard-earned, middle-class taxpayer dollars to subsidize the undeserving poor. There is clearly a racial element to this approach as well. “Welfare queens” are not white. And white voters favor Romney by 18 points.
If Republicans are playing the race card, Democrats are playing the class card. If Obama is portrayed as the candidate of greedy “welfare queens,” Romney is stereotyped as the favorite of heartless “robber barons.” In one particularly unfair ad, a group supporting the president strongly implied that Romney’s company was responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife after he was laid off and she lost her health insurance.
So do you vote for the guy who understands the economy? Or the guy who understands you? The pal of the “welfare queens” or the “robber barons”? Those are the questions facing the middle class as the campaign enters the home stretch.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.