(CBS News) Last week, Mitt Romney decided to go to the hardware store.
No big deal, right? Well, maybe for you or me. But when you’re a major party’s presumptive presidential nominee, the press corps wants as much access to you as it can get.
Which is why when Romney emerged from the store, reporters were there waiting to shout out questions about what he had purchased. Romney’s response? “Hardware stuff.”
Those two words conveyed a not-so-subtle message: Hey, you can follow me around if you want - but I’m not going to let you get too close.
The exchange came on the first day in which Romney was being followed by the “protective press pool.” The protective pool is a small group of reporters assigned to follow the candidate wherever he goes. White House hopefuls grudgingly submit to such coverage under the theory that if you’ve got a serious chance of being president, the American people have a right to know what you’re up to—even if you’re just slipping out for a little hardware stuff.
The primary purpose of a protective pool is to keep tabs on a candidate. Now that he is being followed everywhere he goes, for example, Romney can no longer slip off to a fundraiser without the media knowing about it. But a secondary purpose is to give Americans a sense of who the candidate is as a person - to help us understand the daily life of the person who wants to occupy the Oval Office.
The problem is that when you’re under the microscope, your daily life tends to look a lot different than it did before anyone was watching. (Just ask a reality television star.) Activities that would be normal for an average person, like a trip to the grocery store, start to take on an artificial quality.
Few people understand this as well as 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. When he was Massachusetts governor, Dukakis told CBS News in an interview, he refused a security detail and could do things like stop into Filene’s Basement to buy himself a suit without much fuss. Once he got the nomination, all that changed: Suddenly the Secret Service was keeping constituents away from him, the press was scrutinizing his every move, and his actual personality was getting more and more obscured.
“It’s this really confining and really inhibiting situation you find yourself in,” Dukakis said.
One of the best examples of the distorting nature of life in the bubble, he added, was the difference between the public perception of 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and the reality of the man in private.
“Bob Dole is one of the funniest, wittiest guys I’ve ever met. I say that to people and they don’t believe it,” he said. “You never got any sense of that. None.”
Part of the reason, Dukakis suggested, was that Dole had been told to keep his personality under wraps. When you’re a presidential nominee, after all, an offhand joke can quickly turn into a political scandal.
There are still politicians who are willing to take that risk. Both John McCain and Newt Gingrich were known for chatting frankly and cracking jokes with reporters in casual settings on the presidential campaign trail. Romney is very different: His rare informal interactions with the press tend to be perfunctory, with the candidate keeping reporters very much at a distance.
“I feel like it’s very hard to get to know the real Romney in general, and I think it’s because he’s done this before,” said Sarah Huisenga, the CBS News/National Journal reporter covering Romney. (Huisenga is representing the television networks in the protective pool this week.) “He’s very aware - he’s done campaigns and he’s aware that everything he does is being scrutinized, and everything he does is being reported, and that cameras are catching every single thing.”
President Obama has been a regular critic of the press corps - in particular cable news, which he compared to professional wrestling in 2009. Before winning the presidency, Mr. Obama had been stung when his comment at a fundraiser that some rural voters “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion” became public, setting off a firestorm among talking heads. Like Romney, he has learned to be wary of a media environment in which an offhand comment can come to drown out a candidate’s message.
It all adds up to an irony: The more intense the media coverage, the less incentive a candidate has to expose his or her true self to the public.
“Campaigns have such control over their messaging now, and can reach voters and potential voters without the filter of the media, that it’s all about pushing the message and otherwise trying to remain an enigma,” said Brent Cunningham, Managing Editor of Columbia Journalism Review.
For Romney, however, such a strategy comes with risks. In a CBS News/New York Times poll last month, just one in four voters said they believe the presumptive GOP presidential nominee cares a lot about their needs and problems. Romney’s greatest challenge, says former Republican political strategist Dan Schnur of the University of Southern California, is convincing voters he will look out for their interests.
“The only way to gain that trust is to develop an emotional connection with the voters, and the only way to develop that emotional connection is to open yourself up,” he said. “It’s clearly something that he’s not all that comfortable doing, but it’s something that he’s going to have to do anyway if he wants voters to put their trust in them.”
Schnur said that President George H.W. Bush, for whom he worked as a campaign spokesman, did not like opening up in public and wasn’t particularly good at it. “But he knew that in order to be president, he had to try,” he said.
“The most important hour left in the presidential campaign is going to be Romney’s speech [at the Republican National Convention] in Tampa,” he added. “By the time he leaves the stage in Tampa, voters will either be willing to put their trust in him, or they won’t.”