Mitt Romney and Taylor Swift
Mitt Romney could use some pointers from the country’s beloved pop star (Creative Commons/Eva Rinaldi/Gage Skidmore).

It’s often said that in Taylor Swift’s cosmology, all the world’s a high school. That, right there, is your cue to tell her to grow up. But two weeks out from an election, watching Romney and yes, to an extent Obama auto-pilot their handshakes and baby-holdings for the home stretch, it’s become apparent to me that her strategy has a certain logic to it.

The path to power, and particularly that as it exists in American politics, has the flavor of a popularity contest. (Those ubiquitous gifs are not unlike snapshots pasted in a burn book.) So if Swift’s world is one in which she’s campaigning, well into her twenties, for class sweetheart, so what?

There’s an irony in the space-time convergence of Swift’s ascendancy and Romney’s fall in particular. Swift’s just-released album, Red, is poised to occupy the brain of every person in this country, right at the moment Romney will be forced to look defeat in the face. (Call me an optimist but my general position on the election is this.) Swift herself is said to be a Republican, and the album has a naural Republican tie-in of a title, and it’s already poised to be a blockbuster. It’s on track to sell at least a million copies just this week. Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s still gauging Romney as having just over a three-in-ten chance of taking this whole thing. Even as Romney’s tried to fight his way through the last weeks of the campaign, at most he’s inspired just a tiny wisp of of panic on the left, Andrew Sullivan notwithstanding. If he gets blockbuster anything on November 6, it’s likely to come in the form of the boot that kicks him out the door.

We tell teenagers that high school doesn’t matter, that it’s petty and small and inconsequential. But the lesson of Romney/Swift 2012 is that some of its native coping skills can, in fact, serve you well in adult life. Balance indisputable triumph on the field with the injured air of the underdog, you’ll go far. A keen sense of injustice is the sustaining theme of Swift’s entire career, even as she’s rocketed into the stratosphere.

In the video of her monster hit, “You Belong With Me,” she gets to be both the prom queen and the Miss Lonely-Glasses girl-next-door. Her pursed-lipped dismay at Kanye West remains a thing of Internet legend. And the argument made by her recent single, “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together,” is that it’s all his fault, with an added of teaspoon of disdain because he scorns her music for being “uncool.”

Romney, meanwhile, can’t scratch up even a moment of sympathy from his audiences. So far his own tales of woe have elicited nothing but chuckles and derision, which perhaps explains why his speeches are now filled with his Zelig-like encounters with others. People say they are turned off by his entitlement complex alone, but in truth what they don’t like is what he does with it. Entitlement isn’t social poison. Swift’s entire catalogue is one long claim that the world has withheld the things she deserves from her, be it the right boy, a good relationship or the latest low-rent award on offer.

It’s odd because temperamentally, Swift and Romney have much in common, and shouldn’t be so far apart, success-wise. Both have a cheerful, crowd-pleasing, even bouncy gloss to their public-facing personas. Swift is always on a mission to look like the least objectionable, straightest-bangs girl around. Romney grins and cajoles his way through debates, with nary a sideburn askew. Both have a tendency to wave away hard questions with oh-golly-gosh-gees, maintaining the gloss at the expense of saying anything worth hearing. And both usually hit the tipping point just as they’re insisting a little too directly that they are—really! truly!—nice people.

The gnawing anxiety is pretty easy to track. You didn’t need to grow up in the post–Mean Girls age to know that popularity is fickle, and that the constant tap dance can lead you off a cliff. To keep this up you have to be extraordinarily sensitive to other peoples’ reactions, so you can keep recalibrating to please them. Mine’s not the popular read, but the vagueness in that debate on Monday was just more evidence that Romney is in full-blown panic mode. Sure, he doesn’t know a thing about foreign policy. Sure, he doesn’t really care to learn, either. But boners like “I want to see growing peace in this country”—is he implying that the US is at war?—are really about transparent desperation to please.

Swift, for her part, has a better radar for how to turn the tables on her critics. At the tail end of a lot of fighting last year, she released a catchy single titled “Mean,” which which immortalizes, in lyric form, what we tell every kid who comes to us complaining that they’re still underdogs:

Allow me to be the first to suggest a duet—after the election, of course.

And your wildfire lies and your humiliation
You have pointed out my flaws again
As if I don’t already see them
I walk with my head down
Trying to block you out ‘cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again…

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Allow me to be the first to suggest a duet—after the election, of course.


Taylor Swift could use her voice to help end rape illiteracy, writes Jessica Valenti.