Romney, Obama, and the 47%: gaffes and representative anecdotes in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Author:Coker, Calvin

During the 20f2 presidential campaign, believing his remarks at a private $50,000 a plate fundraiser would not be circulated publically, Republican candidate Willard "Mitt" Romney was video-recorded making the following comment on the election:

[t]here are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. (Corn 2012, para. 2)

The revelation of Romney's private statement likely contributed to his electoral loss. Nate Silver (2012) argues in the New York Times the statement coincided with a shift in the election wherein Romney began losing to ground to Obama among swing voters. The statement generated substantive controversy, and presented a moment for both campaigns to coalesce around a rhetorical event. That event, an inelegant gaffe, presents a notable rhetorical problem of in the context of the 2012 presidential campaign.

It is not simply that the gaffe received a large amount of news coverage. In addition to being mentioned in interviews, invoked in the presidential debates, and subject of constant analysis from pundits, the leaked comment played a rhetorical role in the broader campaign narratives forwarded by both Romney and Obama. In the proceeding essay, I argue the leaked fundraising speech was fashioned as a Burkean representative anecdote (Burke 1962, 1984; Brummett 1984a, 1984b), which crystalized both campaigns' narratives and fostered rhetorical interaction. Brummett (1984b) suggests representative anecdotes are the dramatic elements that represent "the essence of the whole discourse," a component of a broader narrative which embodies the story being formed by particular rhetors (3). In the context of political communication, representative anecdotes are those persistent and simplified examples of a significant argument that get replayed and reiterated in the course of a campaign.

Situating the leaked "47%" comment as a representative anecdote clarifies the rhetorical function of the gaffe in the context of the 2012 presidential race. This clarification is significant for two reasons. First, the use of the leaked comment is a moment where a candidate gaffe is given significant weight by pundits, the polity, and most significantly, both campaigns. Gaffes are often circulated in traditional and social media circles as embarrassing moments for a candidate, but rarely do those verbal missteps persist in the hustle and bustle of the modern campaign (Karpf 2010). Second, this gaffe was embraced by both campaigns, and assigned competing meanings on how the gaffe represented Romney's ideological and political leanings. Where the Romney campaign positioned the gaffe as a bald but necessary expression of conservatism, the Obama campaign elevated the leaked comment as further evidence of Romney's disconnect from the economic reality of the United States. Ultimately, the language of representative anecdote offers explanation to how and why a gaffe could be integrated into broader campaign narratives, and points toward why particular gaffes have rhetorical traction.

To build this argument, I situate extant theorizing on representative anecdotes alongside research on campaign narratives and political gaffes to demonstrate that multiple opposed meanings can be assigned to a representative anecdote in different campaign narratives. Integrating representative anecdotes with narrative analysis (Fisher 1984, 1989) offers scholars an opportunity to uncover previously unseen interactions between competing claims made by campaigns. This situated theoretical perspective on representative anecdote would empower scholars to analyze campaign gaffes more effectively in the overall narratives of given campaigns, a capability that is sorely lacking in contemporary research. Gaffes typically are written off by scholars as campaign ephemera, fleeting exchanges lost in the churn of news coverage and pundit commentary. Gaffes, in this reading, are immaterial to the elements of a campaign that matter. It is insufficient, however, to ask whether gaffes matter, as that question has been, and will be, parsed and answered in different ways (Karpf 2010). Rather, scholars ought to ask in what ways gaffes matter to better understand the interplay of micro level campaign messages and macro-level political narratives.

The present study offers a mechanism to describe and problematize the rhetorical function of gaffes relative to broader campaign messages through an analysis of the leaked "47%" comment in the 2012 presidential campaign. I first discuss the function of political narratives and the dominant narratives of the 2012 campaigns. Next, theoretical perspectives on representative anecdotes and gaffes are introduced, with subsequent analysis of each campaign's integration of the comment. Finally, I argue the crystallization of campaign narratives around a representative anecdote invites discussion on the impact narrative depictions have on political imagination, and the social implications of the employment of those narratives in campaigns.

Narrative in the context of political campaigns

A litany of scholars have discussed in detail the political function of narrative (e.g. Fisher 1984; Levasseur and Gring-Pemble 2015; Lucaites and Condit 1985; Mumby 1987). A perspective of political narrative would suggest both voters' and politicians' decisions do not consist entirely of rational deliberation. The presence of an overarching narrative in a campaign or debate can color the audience's interpretation of events and facts, and even compel individuals to act (Bennett and Edelman 1985). Smith's (1989) treatment of the 1984 national political parties' platforms illuminates how narrative can function in political discourse. Smith, citing Fisher (1985), argues that political parties provide dramatic tension for storytellers: "therefore, an examination of the internal workings of an artifact such as a party platform--a product of an established institution--may yield insights regarding those narrators, the institutions, and their perceived conditions" (Smith 1989, 94). Smith contends that both parties in the 1984 general election offered coherent narratives under Fisher's narrative paradigm, despite the fact that they told opposing and disparate stories. By appealing to different transcendent values, both parties in the 1984 election forwarded a narrative argument for their ascension to the presidency.

Narratives, then, offer arguments for the audiences' consideration. Such arguments, according to Fisher (1984, 1989), are not evaluated exclusively on their rational merit. Instead, narratives are assessed through two criteria, narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. Narrative coherence refers to the internal consistency of a story, the extent to which the audience believes the story to "hang together" and "be free of contradictions" (Fisher 1985, 349). Narrative fidelity, conversely, discusses a narrative's relevance and external consistency of the story relative to the audience's morals. Fisher's (1985) explanation of narrative fidelity involves the truth qualities of the story, the fact, relevance, consequence, consistency, and transcendent issues of the story itself. Implicit in Fisher's criteria is the space for evaluating competing narratives, as well. That evaluative capacity is significant, as a political campaign cycle will feature numerous narratives with varying degrees of fidelity or coherence relative to audience perspectives.

Indeed, a presidential campaign is a long, arduous process that is rarely dominated by a single narrative (Levasseur and Gring-Pemble 2015; Silverstein 2011; Smith 1989). However, different narrative strains develop salience within a campaign, in part based on narrative coherence and fidelity. Particular discourses and actions are rhetorically linked to forward a story, an argument, which offers the audience competing visions of political reality. This competition is evident in the 2012 campaign between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The campaigns foregrounded policies, actions, and arguments to construct what Smith (1989) called transcendent values for the respective campaigns.

The Romney campaign proposed a free-market, anti-intervention narrative situated as referendum on the economic recovery orchestrated in Obama's first term. To that end, Levasseur and Gring-Pemble (2015) argue a prominent narrative of the Romney campaign focused on his business acumen and leadership as evidenced by his tenure at Bain Capital. According to Levasseur and Gring-Pemble (2015), "Romney told of his Bain Capital experience to advance the claim that he was someone who understood how to help businesses" (5). The authors suggest the introduction of the Bain Capital experience created transcendent values that championed market solvency. Romney spoke at length on the benefits of working at Bain Capital late into the campaign, routinely mentioning his experience in stump speeches, and even writing an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in September titled "What I Learned at Bain Capital" (Romney 2012). Focus on the private sector empowered Romney to criticize underlying assumptions about the role of government forwarded by the Obama campaign. In January of 2012, Romney argued the Obama administration had been attempting to draw '"the soul of America' toward a 'European-style welfare state"' (Shear and Saulny 2012, para. 1). By emphasizing the free market, the Romney campaign forwarded a clear political narrative.

Comparatively, the Obama campaign constructed a narrative of Romney as callous and out of touch. Romney was portrayed as "a bazillionaire elitist and conviction-free flip-flopper who has allied himself with the Republican...

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