Why the Seamus Story Has Legs

A "master key" to Romney's personality?

A protester parodies Romney's use of a rooftop cage for Seamus during a July 2012 parade outside Washington, D.C. (Reuters)

Social scientists caution against using anecdotes as master keys to behavior. Most psychologists are skeptical of durable character traits -- the "fundamental attribution error" -- regarding behavior as dependent on circumstances. My friend the sociologist Gary Fine has studied the reputations of political actors in a brilliant paper, "Tricky Dick and Slick Willy," concluding that "hatred facilitates scandal rather than scandal causing hatred." This is equally applicable today, he has confirmed to me in an e-mail.

The odds against Mitt Romney are now over 80-20, according to the Iowa Prediction Markets, probably the best single indicator of how the election will go. Those of London bookmakers are comparable. Part of the reason may be rising house and stock prices, part may be fears about Medicare, but neither fully explains Romney's lag.

The central problem may be that, unlike many other political tales, the Seamus episode  evokes a vivid and concrete mental picture ready-made for cartoons like the recent one by the Washington Post's Tom Toles. Romney's harassment of a gay prep school classmate in 1965 (sadly routine juvenile cruelty?) and his leaked speech to a donors meeting appearing to dismiss 47 percent of the population as moochers (normal, private rich-guy talk?) can be made to seem, respectively, an ominous portent and a confirmation of callousness.

The Seamus story has become a master key for other anecdotes. Barack Obama's ultra-controlled manner, learned in or accentuated by his Indonesian schooling, helped fuel the birther movement (as I've discussed here), but doesn't offer the same visual synergy. Whatever the merits of Obama's and Romney's policy ideas, concrete images prevail.

The debates may yet turn the tide for Romney. But both candidates are surely aware that it was pictures rather than ideas that swayed the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications site reminds us:

In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.

When Romney and Obama debate, will the spirit of Seamus be there in the wings?