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Dissecting the political race, Hollywood-style

lynn.vavreckLynn Vavreck is an associate professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA. She is a co-author, with John Sides, of “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” the author of “The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns,” and co-principal investigator of the 2012 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. Actor William Mapother has appeared in more than 50 films and television shows. This op-ed was posted on Nov. 1, 2012, in the HuffPost.
There's an old saying in Hollywood: Audiences will forgive anything in the first ten minutes and nothing in the last ten minutes. Right now, the theater is filled with undecided voters, and in Los Angeles, where performances (and everyone's evaluation of them) are the name of the game, we thought we'd evaluate the candidates from an Angelino point of view. We're in the last ten minutes of this film, so what can we say about the candidates' performances?
Political campaigns are actually a lot like big-budget studio movies with candidates cast as heroes. The leading character needs to connect across a chasm of demographics to a wide audience imagining itself as James Bond or Jason Bourne. The performance goes to the audience, making it easy for members to project themselves and their dreams onto the performances. The big-budget protagonist becomes, essentially, a screen, in and of him — or herself.
But presidential candidates confront an additional challenge. Voters need them to be authentic and sincere, despite the fact that they are cast in a role that requires them to engage in non-stop electioneering and attempts at persuasion. The attack ads don't help.
In this way, the presidential candidates are also like protagonists in smaller independent films who ask the audience to come to them. These characters are flawed and individualist, like a mirror in which the audience sees some of its inner self. Sympathy for them has to overcome the faults and idiosyncrasies, and for candidates, the incessant attacks on their opponents.
Typically, the big-budget hero finds battle outside the self, against opponents; the indie-protagonist's battle is within. The hero becomes unwavering in his quest and unresponsive to pressure, while the protagonist is changeable, permeable, variable, and vulnerable. As an aspiration, the hero becomes; as a reality, the indie-protagonist is. It's the difference between being seen as all Americans compared to being seen as one very specific American. Candidates must bridge these types, persuading voters to see them both as the big budget hero — "He's all of us" — and at the same time, as an indie-protagonist — "He's one of us."
Few candidates balance both effectively, and this year is no different. Barack Obama is a natural indie-protagonist because of his race, which makes him different from most of the electorate; but also because he's viewed as sincere and unique. Add to this the fact that Obama is not well-positioned to portray himself as the hero: Economic growth has been slow, and as an incumbent he can no longer offer voters a blank screen of hope and change. Mitt Romney faces the opposite challenge. As a white, successful American capitalist, still relatively new to voters, he is well-positioned to play the role of hero. However, he struggles to be seen as sincere; instead, his personal wealth has made voters question whether he is "inwardly" rich in addition to materially so. He goes to the voters, but they are not necessarily going to him.
Here's what these trends look like by the numbers. The Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (C.C.A.P.), run by the polling firm YouGov, has been interviewing 1,000 voters a week since Dec. 15, 2011. C.C.A.P has asked over 37,000 voters whether Mitt Romney and Barack Obama mainly "say what they believe" or what "others want to hear." These measures of sincerity illustrate what has been one of the main challenges in the race — there is a significant "sincerity-gap" between the candidates.
On average, 40 percent of the electorate think the president says what he believes, but only 23 percent think that of Romney. This 17-point sincerity-gap is the result of 57 percent of the electorate believing that Romney "says what others want to hear," compared to 50 percent who think this about Obama. These results are of course driven by party, but even among self-declared independent voters, the president has an 11-point advantage on sincerity. There's some good news for Romney in the data, though. Women are no more likely to find him insincere than men, and among undecided voters, the candidates are tied at a roughly 13 percent sincerity rating. Undecided voters also find Obama slightly more (seven points) insincere than Romney. Most undecided voters (nearly 40 percent), however, just cannot muster an answer to this question.
In these last few days, voters will ultimately decide whether Obama can play the hero and defeat his opponent in the final act, or whether Romney is sincere and authentic — whether he is one particular American who grows into a better version of himself. As those of us in Los Angeles know too well, the winner will be the one who gives the best performance — and of course, the audience is listening.
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