How a Movie from the '90s Predicted the 2012 Election

Before the first vote was cast in the 2012 presidential election, everyone was already sick of talking about the 2012 presidential election. It's almost statistically impossible that you're not sick of it at this point, when there are so many other stories to dominate the news. (Kate Middleton is having Chris Brown's neck tattoo! I think. I really only know things about movies and presidents.)

Jun Sato / Getty
People still talk about Will Smith, right? You know what? Let's just move on.

But I wanted to write this piece now, because it involves looking back on the election, and it's way more effective to understand something after it happens, not while it's happening. My goal is to put the 2012 election into context, but not historical context -- movie context. If you're anything like me, you don't understand anything unless it's pushed through the lens of pop culture (I see all of my friends as analogues of characters from either The Breakfast Club or Jurassic Park, and when I go to restaurants, I order food by saying things like "Bring me a macaroni and cheese that looks as good as the one that Kevin made but frustratingly never ate in Home Alone"). So, I'm going to tell you the story of this election via movies.

It will be weird.

Act I: Mitt Romney is the Nominee in a Wacky Fish-Out-of-Water Comedy!

See: Coming to America, The Terminal

The media's version of Romney when he first received the nomination was your classic foreign fish-out-of-water story. In movies like Coming to America, or in the Saturday Night Live "Wild and Crazy Guy" sketches, the fun comes from the fact that you've got this outsider with all of his weird and wacky customs trying to fit in in America. He talks different. His clothes are different. He doesn't understand basic human social cues. Comedy! The fun comes from watching him struggle to adjust as he misunderstands and misuses common local customs that are utterly foreign to him.

In the case of the 2012 election, Romney wasn't a foreign fish out of water; he was a robot fish.

Or alien fish.

Either way, you've got a guy so clearly out of touch with the mainstream that he barely knows how to dress like us.

"Hey y'all, what ... what are ... y'all ... doing?"

We loved his constant inability to connect to or bond with other people. We loved pouncing on his interviews and speeches, because he spoke with the kind of practiced, formal intensity of an alien trying desperately to fit in with our hu-man language -- like in November of 2011, when he strapped on the ole' mom jeans and attended one of those fake events designed to look like a casual town hall meeting with real Americans. The whole goal of these things is to affect an informal, "Hey I'm a cool substitute teacher; let me rap atcha" vibe, but it was full of Romney saying things like "Your story about dust regulation captures my interest," which, yes, is a direct quote, in an event designed to make Romney seem accessible and human. Just Google "Mitt Romney robot" and waste the rest of your afternoon questioning whether or not he actually is one. The evidence is ... fairly compelling

And that was the story for a while, in the media and among pundits and comedians. Let's watch while Mitt Romney adorably struggles to adjust to our hu-man lifestyle. But that wasn't the whole story. That was just the first act.

Gage Skidmore
And there was almost no face-hugging involved.

Act II: Mitt Romney Builds Steam in the Inspiring Underdog Sports Movie

See: Rocky, Rocky II, Rudy

There's not a whole lot of mileage to be had out of a fish-out-of-water story, and the election cycle is long, so about half way through, the media needed to change things up. They spent all of Act I beating Romney down and making fun of how silly and ridiculous and robotic he was just so they could dramatize his spectacular rise to glory in Act II, the Inspiring Sports Movie. President Obama was the seemingly unstoppable powerhouse of politics, and Romney was your scrappy, up-and-coming underdog, which is the only time that's ever been true of a middle-aged white guy who owns somewhere between three and a dozen homes.

That was the story when Romney and Obama debated for the first time, and everyone in the media was talking about how Romney surprised everyone and demolished Obama.

Fox News
"We literally ran out of cigarettes after this one."

This was the who-saw-it-coming come-from-behind victory-in-the-making that serves as the DNA for all of the best underdog sports movies. Win or lose, Romney was going to lift himself up from obscurity, overcome impossible odds and end the day as a hero. Like Rudy. Like Rocky. Like the Little Giants.

In the end, of course, it couldn't be any of those movies, because those movies didn't reflect what actually happened.

What actually happened was that Obama was always going to win this race. For starters, 51 percent of Americans liked Obama personally and his policies, and 30 percent liked him even if they didn't like his policies. Also, it's really hard to unseat an incumbent; of the 43 presidents (or 44 presidencies) we've had, the incumbent lost only 10 times. To bring things even closer to home, our own David Wong, who monitors election polls closer than anyone I've ever met, pointed out that even after a $3 billion campaign was waged, and even after Romney's "horrible 47 percent gaffe," and even after Obama's "lackluster debate performance," in two years, the polls almost never changed. Obama was the favorite to win this back in 2010, and after two years, the polls moved more in his favor by only a point and a half. Obama had this. Always.


Immediately, people are going to disagree with that concept (which is silly, because Obama did win). While there was always a chance that the president would commit some colossal blunder or mismanage a disaster or punt a baby or do anything else that might cost him the election, going strictly by polling numbers (and by listening to the guys who analyze polling data and draw conclusions professionally, who are very good at it), the president had this one in the bag. That's why a year ago the GOP was trotting out Herman Cain and Rick Perry and that other clown car of lunatics as possible candidates instead of any of the actual serious contenders. Guys like Governor Chris Christie or Jeb Bush weren't going to even pretend to run in 2012; losing to Obama meant not getting a shot to run in 2016, when they actually might have a chance of winning (depending on who the Democrats run, or if the world ends in some apocalyptic firestorm of socialized marriage and mandatory gayness by then).

That's how a guy like Mitt Romney, an inaccessible, uncharismatic, inconsistent smile-robot, gets taken seriously as a candidate. But that's a boring story, and a boring presidential election story is absolutely poisonous to political blogs and 24-hour news channels. In the way that retail stores rely on Christmas shopping to make the majority of their profits for the year, political blogs and analysts and news networks put a ton of eggs in the election basket. They need people to pay attention to them during election season, but an election that's in the bag -- an election with no inherent story -- isn't worth talking about or watching. So what do you do? You invent the story. You create a narrative. You tell the American people that a done deal is a nail-biting horse race, and you pray that they believe you. You lie.

That's why the media invented and started pushing the Rudy or Rocky narrative, the story about the goofy underdog who surprised everyone by defying the odds and becoming a real contender. Even though Rocky lost in Rocky, that still doesn't make it the perfect analogue for this election, because at least Rocky had a shot, and Romney never did. It's a great boxing movie, but it's not this election.

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Daniel O'Brien

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