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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, listens to a question from a reporter as he visits a campaign call center in Livonia, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, listens to a question from a reporter as he visits a campaign call center in Livonia, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

What can Mitt Romney learn from other super-rich presidential candidates? Add to ...

For a candidate who has been accused of sounding out of touch with ordinary Americans, Mitt Romney found new ways to emphasize the disconnect in the run-up to the Michigan primary contest – and unless the former Massachusetts governor can find a way to talk about his wealth and find common ground with voters, his candidacy will be hobbled.

On voting day, he was asked by a reporter at his campaign headquarters in Livonia, Michigan, whether he felt his recent gaffes had hurt him.

“Yes,” he told reporters. “Next question.” Mr. Romney went on to narrowly win his home state of Michigan, a state he carried easily just four years ago.

“I think it was [American journalist]Michael Kinsley who said that, ‘A gaffe is when someone accidentally speaks the truth,’” says Boston University historian Bruce Schulman.

“When you’re under this constant scrutiny for month after month, it’s hard to keep the real you from coming out. And the real Romney is someone who has hundreds of millions of dollars and that puts him in pretty rarefied air.”

At a campaign event in Detroit last week, Mr. Romney casually mentioned that while he drove two cars, his wife Ann drove “a couple of Cadillacs.” At the Daytona 500 last Sunday, when asked about his interest in car racing, Mr. Romney explained, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”

Rather than identifying with the people in the viewing stands – which is why he was there in the first place – Mr. Romney appeared to link himself to the wealthy racing team owners.

“I just don’t think he has never been able to articulate a message that speaks to people who earn less than $100,000 a year,” argues Rutgers University historian David Greenberg.

“He just doesn’t think about those things. It’s not in his world. I mean just these gaffes – ‘I drive two cars, my wife drives two Cadillacs’ – it’s mind-boggling that he can talk like that.”

The former Massachusetts governor, who made his fortune as the head of investment firm Bain Capital, has delivered a stream of what-not-to-say quips on the campaign trail at a time when the country’s economic recovery is shaky, there is focus on the estimated $200-million Romney family fortune, and there’s growing concern that Republican front-runner lacks a common touch.

But Mr. Romney is by no means the first wealthy candidate to seek the White House.

A President Mitt Romney, according to two studies – one by financial news analysis group 24/7 Wall Street and the other by Forbes – would rank very close to the top on America’s wealthiest presidents list.

The 24/7 Wall Street study looked at the peak wealth of each U.S. president and adjusted the figures in 2010 dollar terms. In both studies, George Washington, with his vast Virginia plantations and slaves, ranks first, with one estimate suggesting his net worth would be $525-million.

Even Mr. Romney’s rivals in the Republican leadership contest may not rank close to him in net worth, but they are worth millions, made from writing books and speaking and consulting fees. The ‘poorest’ is Rick Santorum, whose net worth is estimated at over a million dollars.

President Barack Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, delivered significant royalties, with most of the Obama household’s 2009 gross income of $5.6-million coming from those books. According to Forbes magazine, President Obama’s net worth is likely around $10-million.

Wealth and the White House are intertwined.

Indeed, that is the story of U.S. presidential politics for over a century, and Mr. Romney – with just eight months before the November presidential election – would do well to study his predecessors and learn how to wear that wealth, according to American scholars and historians.

“For most of the 20th century, the conventional wisdom was that patrician candidates – men of great wealth – could win American national elections but only if they were the champion of the common man, the candidate with the ideology most congenial to the interests of ordinary workers and farmers, with a willingness to criticize big business,” explains Mr. Schulman.

The ‘champions,’ as Mr. Schulman explains, were Democratic Party presidents, men born into established families and heirs to tremendous wealth – Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and John F. Kennedy (JFK) – but still managed to connect with voters.

A patrician running as a Republican in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s would have faced tremendous obstacles, Mr. Schulman adds. “The Republican party had a hard time making the claim to be a champion of the little guy and it was widely viewed as the party of business and the party of the wealthy.”

Mr. Romney is part of a trend of wealthy businessmen-turned-politicians that has been brought about by an ideological shift in U.S. politics since the 1970s when “worship of the free market becomes part of the American political ideology,” Mr. Schulman explains. “[In the 1970s] businessmen become the heroes in American public life and that creates a different kind of space.”

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