As I’ve said several times, I don’t think Romney will win the election, because he isn’t as likeable and charismatic as Obama. But people ask: “he could win, though, right? There’s a chance? There is not, as John McLaughlin might say, ‘absolute metaphysical certitude’ of his defeat?”
Is there a precedent for the charismatic, gifted orator being beaten by the boring but wealthy guy? Why yes, yes there is. In 1896 William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan despite Bryan being a brilliant and popular speaker.
McKinley represented the business interests of the city and Bryan represented the poor farmers—the populists. Bryan embarked on a tour of the country; McKinley stayed on his front porch and let the people come to him. Bryan was youthful and exciting, McKinley had more money. Indeed, McKinley’s campaign created the modern form of campaign finance: convincing businesses to give you money by telling them your opponent will be bad for them.
Case in point: you want to hear some class warfare? Here’s the end of Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech:
It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Wow! It sounds like Pat Robertson speaking on behalf of Occupy Wall Street! This sort of thing was what enabled the Mckinley campaign to convince business that it was worth their while to give lots of money to the cause of preventing Bryan’s election. And, evidently, it worked. As the chart here shows, 1896 had by far the most campaign spending of any campaign in history as a percentage of GDP.
So, there is Romney’s blueprint: have more corporate money on his side than Obama and hope that will see him through. There is some reason to think this could happen, given the Citizens United decision and the rise of so-called “Super-PACS”. It could, I repeat, could happen.
However, there are lots of reasons why I think 2012 is not 1896:
- No radio/television/internet in 1896. These technologies are a force multiplier for charisma. If they had existed in 1896, Bryan would probably have won.
- Bryan was not the incumbent President. Incumbency gives someone an advantage in that they are not only some guy running for President, but actually the President of the United States. Even if unpopular, the office gives the occupant an automatic degree of authority and respect.
- Romney isn’t as good at campaigning as McKinley.
- Obama is more friendly to the business establishment than Bryan was. Ask around among the disappointed progressives and you’ll see that they can only wish Obama would give a “cross of gold”-style speech.
I’ll allow that there is a slim chance Romney could win, but I still do not think it is likely.