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Why Harvard may not help Mitt Romney catch votes

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this year, presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann stood before a group of students and politicians in Manchester, N.H., and enthusiastically declared, "You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."

Of course, the shot heard around the world took place in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire.

The gaffe made headlines across the country, and confirmed to a certain type of voter that Bachmann wasn't fit for office.

After all, unlike most U.S. presidents, she didn't attend an Ivy League school. Instead, she graduated from Winona State University.

But that — and Bachmann's everyman slip-up — may actually work to her favor, if she got the Republican nomination.

"There is clearly an anti-elite element to the current Tea Party movement and a strong disdain for what they might characterize as intellectual elites which they associate with liberalism," said Mark J. Rozell professor of public policy at George Mason who has studied trends among the political and religious right in America. "That's a big part of their mantra — that powerful mainstream institutions, like the media and higher education, are hostile toward their brand of conservatism; it's a strongly and sincerely held belief among many conservatives and tea party activists."

Since the beginning of the 20th century the United States has elected only three presidents who have not been associated with prestigious institutions of higher education — Warren Harding (Ohio Central College), Harry Truman (who didn't graduate from college) and Ronald Reagan (Eureka College). Counting the past two decades alone, every single U.S. president has graduated with a degree from Harvard, Yale or Columbia, and in some instances two of the three.

In fact, beyond those who have actually won the presidency, almost all the Democrat and Republican presidential nominees over the past 22 years have also possessed Ivy League degrees — the lone exception being John McCain who graduated from the well-regarded U.S. Naval Academy and Bob Dole who attended Washburn University.

Despite this two-decade-long tradition of presidential nominees with elite educations, in the current Tea Party climate of the GOP fancy diplomas could actually hurt a republican candidate's chances of winning the nomination.

"When you do polling you look at a number of factors and you try to understand what motivates people to vote a certain way," said Tim Chambless, a professor of political science with the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "Ultimately, what we find is there is a block of voters ... who are suspicious of well-educated and wealthy candidates, especially those with inherited wealth and who are better educated than they are."

This could hurt candidates like Jon Huntsman, who went to the University of Pennsylvania, and Mitt Romney, who spent time at Stanford and received two degrees from Harvard.

Yet, even within fractions of the GOP who are skeptical of these candidates' wealth and education, both Huntsman and Romney may be able to overcome these perceptions.

"It's not so much whether they come from these backgrounds of education and wealth — it's more about how candidates present themselves to the populous," said Joseph Lowndes, an associate professor of political science from the University of Oregon, who has researched the Tea Party and modern conservatism.

"Bush was a master at this. I remember seeing him at an event talking with ranchers about how he was happy to see more boots than suits — yet, he had wealth and an Ivy League background — he was a very convincing populist, man of the people."

Yet, if the economy is bad enough in 2012, Romney may not need to dispel perceptions of elitism, Chambless says.

"Romney's record of being a turnaround artist at Bain capital and a very successful businessman may create cognitive dissonance among voters if the economy is bad enough. Voters may say, 'Though I have these suspicions about Romney, the economy is so bad that I will vote for Mitt Romney because of his credentials as a turnaround artist despite these suspicions.' "

The faction of the republican party who needs the least convincing about Romney are the well-educated. According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year Romney was the top candidate among potential republican voters with college degrees. Romney is currently considered the GOP frontrunner and has been pegged by many political pundits as the most likely candidate to win the GOP nomination.