Election 2014

Romney Banks on Voters' Stupidity After Illinois Win

Santorum celebrated his defeat by denying climate change. Romney celebrated his win with a lightbulb lie. And a prominent pollster said voters are stupid. Pattern?

Photo Credit: C-SPAN

In the Illinois Republican presidential primary, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won big on Tuesday, especially among people at the top of the educational and income scales. The victory speech he delivered, however, seemed geared to the factually challenged. 

In the space of a few minutes, Romney lauded the building of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway systems as two of the nation's greatest accomplishments. And then he he slammed President Barack Obama for his administration's stimulus package. "This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small," Romney said. "The truth is our economy is struggling because the government is too big."

Where, one wonders, did the money for the building of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system come from, if not from government? In fact, the building of the dam was financed by the government as part of a massive investment in infrastructure designed to put people to work and develop the economy during the Great Depression.

Latching on to that right-wing bugaboo, the phase-out of the incandescent light bulb, Romney perpetuated the lie that the Obama administration is regulation-crazed, and that, overall, government is just bad. "The government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb," he said. "Oh, that’s right. They just did."

Never mind that the phase-out began under the Bush administration, or that anyone who can work the Google can easily find that out. Especially the 53 percent of college graduates voting in the primary who cast their votes for Romney.

So what gives? Is Romney really that dumb? Or are such idiotic assertions part of some genius strategy to win his battle for the Republican presidential nomination against an opponent, Rick Santorum, whose rhetoric is even more confounding?

Politico last week ran a provocative story by Alexander Burns suggesting that people who vote are not necessarily the brightest incandescents in the pack. Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a respected Democratic firm, told Burns: "The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid. I tell a client trying to make sense of numbers on a poll that are inherently contradictory that at least once a week."

For progressives, it's a delicious claim, if applied only to Republican primary voters. In truth, it's more complicated than that. It's not that voters are stupid; it's that people believe what they want to believe. As Santorum put it last night in his non-victory valedictory: "[A]ll across this country, you know in your gut [that] big things are adrift and at stake in this election."

It's all about the gut.

Gut-check

In the guts of Republican primary voters, most have a visceral reflex indicating that anything initiated by a man named Barack Obama -- a man who is not white, by the way -- is bad, very bad indeed. And even in the guts of those who comprise the general electorate, there's a feeling of queasiness that might not have applied to similar policies advanced by former President Bill Clinton.

On Tuesday morning, National Public Radio aired a piece by Shankar Vedantum about a study by Michael Tesler, an political scientist at Brown University, that examined racial attitudes toward Obama's health-care plan. Vedantum explained:

In an experiment, Tesler presents a health care overhaul policy to whites, telling some that the policy is advocated by Bill Clinton and telling others that it's advocated by Barack Obama; Tesler finds that whites with liberal racial attitudes become more supportive of the policy when they think Obama is its chief advocate, while whites with a conservative attitude become less supportive of the policy when they think of health care as an Obama policy.

 Consider that in the context of Tom Jensen's comments toPolitico about voters' attitudes toward the health-care plan:

Jensen, a Democrat, pointed to surveys showing that voters embraced individual elements of the Affordable Care Act, while rejecting the overall law, as an example of the political schizophrenia or simple ignorance that pollsters and politicians must contend with.

“We’re seeing that kind of thing more and more. I think it’s a function of increased political polarization and voters just digging in their heels and refusing to consider the opposing facts once they’ve formed an opinion about something,” said Jensen, who has generated eye-catching data showing many GOP primary voters still question the president’s religion and nationality. “I also think voters are showing a tendency to turn issues that should be factual or non-factual into opinions. If you show a Tennessee birther Obama’s birth certificate, they’re just going to say ‘well in my opinion he’s not a real American.’ It’s not about the birth certificate; it’s about expressing hatred for Obama in any form they can.”

And so we find Romney, the creator of a remarkably similar health-care plan to Obama's, describing the him as "a president who doesn’t hesitate to use all means necessary to force Obamacare on the American public."

Perhaps he gets away with it simply because something derided as "Romneycare" isn't nearly so frightening to Republican voters as something derided as "Obamacare."

And Santorum, who spent almost as much of his speech taking hits at Romney as he did at Obama, doubled down on the anti-government, anti-health-care rhetoric this way: "[A]fter and if Obamacare is implemented, every single American will depend upon the federal government for something that is critical, their health and their life."

Santorum has cleverly linked his anti-Obama rhetoric to notions of government dependency, and linked notions of government dependency to African Americans, as seen in the Iowa campaign stop in which he famously said that he didn't want "to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money."

Right-wing Republicans pride themselves on their self-sufficiency. To be dependent on government is, in their minds, to be like a black person. And just never mind the actual fact that the health-care plan does not make anyone any more dependent on the federal government than they already are. And just forget about the fact that most public assistance goes to white people.

Fuzzy math and bad science

Then there's the anti-government cognitive dissonance, as seen in the famous sign held at a rally against health-care reform that read, "Keep the Government's Hands off My Medicare."

As Chris Mooney writes in his forthcoming book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality (excerpted here at AlterNet): 

Republicans become more factually wrong with higher levels of education. Facts clearly don’t change their minds -- if anything, they make matters worse! [Linguist George] Lakoff, too, emphasizes how refuting a false conservative claim can actually reinforce it. And he doesn’t merely show why the Enlightenment mode of thinking is outdated; he also stresses that liberals are more wedded to it than conservatives, and this irrational rationalism lies at the root of many political failures on the left.

Rick Santorum apparently knew what he was doing Tuesday night when he went into full-tilt climate-change denial. As transcribed by the Washington Post:

When the climate -- when those who -- who -- who profess manmade global warming and climate science convinced many, many Republicans, including two who are running for president on the Republican ticket, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. 

But there was one who said: I know this isn’t climate science. This is political science. 

And this was another attempt of those who want to take power away from you and control your access to energy, your utilization, whether it’s in your car or in your home of energy, because they are better to make these decisions about how you use energy than you do. 

It may be tempting to believe, as PPP's Tom Jensen does, that such an appeal registers only with the ignorant, but it's just not true. It's all about the gut -- and about setting a right-wing agenda in motion for generations to come, according to Lakoff.

And it's that same gut feeling that permits Romney, who likes to wax poetically about delegate math, to conjure a vision of "when a government finally understands that it’s better for more to pay less in taxes than for a few to pay more." Just how does that math pan out? Doesn't matter. It soothes the roiling gut.

As for Santorum, he really has no vision for government, and he sees that as a selling point, promising on Tuesday to "tear government out by its roots and throw it away."

That bit of hot sauce was likely added to the gumbo Santorum is cooking up for Louisiana, where the state Republican Party will hold a primary on Saturday -- and where he is currently leading in the polls. 

 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan