In his 1992 re-election bid, President George H.W. Bush's fascination with the scanning technology of a modern supermarket perplexed middle-class voters. Supermarket shoppers were accustomed to bar code scanning, having seen it in widespread use for a decade. Bush appeared to be gobsmacked:
A recession and an out of touch patrician is a bad combination. Nine months later, voters elected a Governor from Arkansas who felt their pain and spoke fluent Bubba.
Visiting the exhibition hall of the National Grocers Association convention here, Mr. Bush lingered at the mock-up of a checkout lane. He signed his name on an electronic pad used to detect check forgeries.
"If some guy came in and spelled George Bush differently, could you catch it?" the President asked. "Yes," he was told, and he shook his head in wonder.
Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.
"This is for checking out?" asked Mr. Bush. "I just took a tour through the exhibits here," he told the grocers later. "Amazed by some of the technology."
The iconic image of the 1988 Presidential campaign (besides Willie Horton) was a helmeted Michael Dukakis cruising around in an M-1 Abrams tank. Despite Dukakis's previous military service, the photo op at a General Dynamics plant backfired. Rather than refuting concerns about his national security bona fides, the "Dukakis in a tank" moment became an emblem that he was out of touch with the military.
Like Bush's fascination with grocery scanner and Dukakis's tank ride, Tom Emmer's tip credit debacle defined him as a politician who was out of touch with the electorate.
(The relevant part of this video starts at about 5:30.)
The statement "I didn't realize that servers could be taking home six figures" really raised the hackles of working class folks. In the context of a listening tour that focused on the needs and wants of business owners, Emmer's sympathy about their tax burdens was understandable. But the $100,000 servers making off like bandits while the job creators were suffering touched a nerve.
I won't recount the reasons why this claim was ludicrous, or the backtracking that followed in its wake. But the "Tom the Waiter" empathy exercise that followed was just as ludicrous as the original statement. The fundamental error of the Emmer campaign was not letting go and pivoting. They just had to prove that Tom Emmer really gets it. The sweaty press conference that ended in a trickster's shower of pennies was an appropriately surreal capstone for the whole shebang.
Alliance for a Better Minnesota made hay with the "out of touch with working Minnesotans" message in this television spot derived mostly from video taken at the press conference.
Polling demonstrates how this affected Emmer's image. A July 19th Rasmussen Poll showed Emmer with lower approval than all other candidates for Governor, Tim Pawlenty, and Barack Obama. The fuzzily positive impression of Emmer in the wake of his endorsement was squandered by the end of July. This impression persisted. Nearly all polls that asked favorability questions afterward found a negative impression of Emmer.
One question in the last Star Tribune poll really struck me. Respondents were given three statements and asked to pick which one was the most important in determining their vote. "Whether a candidate cares about people like you" was the clear winner with 55%. While "cares about you" was by far the highest rated statement, Emmer voters were less likely (47%) to rate that statement highest than supporters of Dayton or Horner. They were also much more likely to rate "Whether a candidate has a background in business" as their choice (27% of Emmer voters versus only 8% of Dayton voters.) The Emmer campaign banked on their business-friendly job creation message. If they'd convinced (even 9,000) more Minnesotans that reducing regulations and taxes on business was an expression of care for people like them, they'd be celebrating an Emmer victory.
The tip credit debacle showed Emmer as someone who would side with management against their employees. It's ironic that a scion of a wealthy family would end up being perceived as more in touch with the needs of the working and middle classes. But professing surprise that waitstaff were making six figures was Emmer's out of touch moment, and it may well have cost him the election.
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