WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's riff this week on Wawa's "amazing" touchscreen technology for ordering hoagies sparked a Twitter tizzy as the latest proof that the Republican presidential hopeful is hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. Yet Romney is hardly the first national politician to appear clueless about life among the folks down home.
In 1968, Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, touted as Richard Nixon's urban expert, made clear he wouldn't set foot in poor neighborhoods. "If you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all," he said.
President Gerald Ford met his everyman Alamo during a 1976 stop in San Antonio, Texas, where he shocked the locals by biting into a tamale, husk and all.
In perhaps the most famous -- and, as it turned out, not quiet true -- example, President George H.W. Bush, then visiting a 1992 grocers convention, seemed unfamiliar with the existence of supermarket scanners.
Fair or not, such faux pas can come across as disconnected or even elitist in the minds of voters -- especially if a candidate is snooty enough to use fancy French words like faux pas.
"A candidate for president always walks a tightrope," said Robert Schmuhl, an expert on the presidency who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. "You need to convey a sense of command, of leadership ability, and at the same time, you have to be perceived as someone who personally understands the country and its citizenry -- the 'one of us' factor."
Call it the beer test. Polls in 2004 showed that President George W. Bush was seen as more down-to-earth than his opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Asked who they would rather have a beer with, a majority said they'd rather hoist one with the teetotaling Bush than the patrician Kerry. Still, even Bush appeared to lose the common touch after seven-plus years in the White House when he said he hadn't heard predictions that gasoline prices would hit $4 a gallon.
Kerry tried mightily, and unsuccessfully, to connect with regular people during his presidential bid. In South Philadelphia, he got creamed for ordering Swiss cheese on a cheese steak instead of the usual Cheez Whiz. To appeal to rural voters suspicious of the state conservatives tarred as Taxachusetts and home to that most elite of elite universities, Harvard, Kerry went goose hunting. But the outing, complete with camouflage clothing, was seen as little more than the photo op it was. Kerry's penchant for the upscale sport of windsurfing didn't help, either. Indeed, it provided the perfect metaphor in a Bush campaign ad depicting the senator as tacking any which way the political winds blow.
The current presidential contender from Massachusetts, whose own metaphor for flip-flopping is now the Etch A Sketch, also has tried connecting with voters through sports. Or, as he recently said to much ridicule, "sport."
But during a visit to the Daytona International Speedway, Romney said he had "some friends who are NASCAR team owners." Then, in an interview about football with a sports radio host in Alabama, he mentioned he had "a lot of good friends -- the owners of the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets." And will his insistence that dressage is his wife Ann's passion, and not his, convince voters watching her mare compete in the London Olympics next month that he isn't a member of the horsey set?
Not if they recall his rhetorical $10,000 wager in a GOP presidential debate. Or his saying he made "a little bit of money" -- actually $360,000 -- in speaking fees. Planning a $12 million renovation on his California house, including a four-car garage equipped with an elevator, also doesn't help.
All these and more reinforce "the idea that this guy is living in a bubble," said Norman Ornstein, a longtime political observer at the American Enterprise Institute. "Every time Romney opens his mouth trying to show he can connect with average people, he reinforces the notion that he can't."
Is it something about Massachusetts? Two years ago, Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley all but doomed her Senate bid against Republican Scott Brown when she dismissed the idea of campaigning outside Boston's beloved Fenway Park: "In the cold? Shaking hands?”
The elder Bush would be depicted as out of touch in the scanner incident because of a misinterpreted White House pool report by a New York Times reporter who wasn't at the event. The Times later defended its report.
Still, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who now works as a media consultant, said in an email that the Times account was "typical of media trying to read too much into a single comment or facial expression -- especially from a pool report. When folks jump all over things like the President saying 'the private sector is doing fine' or Romney saying 'I like to fire people' or [Vice President Joe] Biden saying … well, almost everything … they tend to mislead their readers/viewers."
Indeed, while Romney has had more than his share of outright Thurston Howell III utterances, some argue this week's Wawa remark is not one of them. Conservative websites have accused MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell of selective editing to make the candidate seem out of touch. When taken in context, they said, it was clear he was comparing government inefficiency to private sector innovation. Mitchell has since played more of Romney's remarks but has not backed off her Wawa jest.
The whole incident "seems like a 'gotcha' to me," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Minnesota's Carleton College, in an email. "I have never been to such a place or ordered in such a fashion, nor has anyone I know, including my wife and kids. So I don't think this is such a big deal. The Bush grocery checkout example was misreported into an 'out of touch moment' and this may be as well."
For its part, the Romney campaign has pounced on President Barack Obama's "doing fine" remark as proof that the incumbent is the one who is out of touch with economic reality. The comment has forced the Obama campaign into damage control mode as pundits compare it to Sen. John McCain's 2008 howler when he said, in the midst of the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”
Despite that misstep by the president, Ornstein doubts Romney can turn the tables on this score. "For the black guy who grew up with a single mother who was sometimes on welfare and who [himself] was a community organizer, it's hard to make the case that he's out of touch," Ornstein said.
Not that one wouldn't expect Obama to lose the common touch, said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The truth is that top national politicians, especially presidents and presidential candidates, tend to gradually become isolated from popular culture and popular experiences," he said in an email. "Their meals are cooked for them, their errands run, their transportation provided. For politicians who have long been wealthy, like Romney, this disconnect may have begun much earlier in life, if not shortly after conception."
While some gaffes can all but doom a candidacy, others may last only until the next news cycle.
Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus Stephen Hess was an aide in Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign and was traveling on Agnew's plane when he made his slum remark. At the time, it "felt like a 60,000 mile gotcha moment, felt pretty troubling at the time, but in retrospect can’t think of any of his constant foot faults that made any difference," Hess wrote in an email. "Conclusion, then and now: voters really do know what’s important and what’s not."
Indeed, the media made much of the fact that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani didn't know the price of a gallon of milk when he ran for president in 2007. His disconnect recalled the first President Bush's cluelessness on the subject and prompted much debate over whether knowing the price of groceries really mattered.
Romney's Wawa kerfuffle also strikes Robert Thompson, an expert on rhetoric and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, as beside the point.
Despite all the "political hay being made and the screaming and shouting in every online comment section," the idea that "somehow being Joe the Plumber is what we all want in a president' is specious," Thompson said. "When I decide who does surgery on me, I don't want just 'one of the guys.' I want someone really good at surgery ... Who you want to have a beer with and who you want running the economy and foreign policy are two different things."
This story has been updated to reflect the controversy over what Mitt Romney was or was not saying about Wawa's ordering system.