Analysis: Will Romney's "47 percent" comment resonate?

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he speaks with aides aboard his plane on September 17, 2012 as he heads to Salt Lake City to attend a fundraising event. AFP/Getty

US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as he speaks with aides aboard his plane on September 17, 2012 as he heads to Salt Lake City to attend a fundraising event.
AFP/Getty
(CBS News) Even Mitt Romney's staunchest defenders have to admit it's been a rough few weeks for the Republican presidential nominee. First came the Republican convention, where Clint Eastwood's rambling, ad-libbed speechovershadowed Romney's big moment. Then there were a series of polls after the Democratic convention showing President Obama opening up a slim, but significant, lead over Romney. That was followed by Romney's off-key attackson the president over violence in the Middle East. Then came a barrage of criticism from conservatives and reports of discord within the campaign, which prompted Romney advisers to insist they were charting a new course.

And then, on Monday, what many are treating as the biggest unforced error yet: Video showing Romney at a high-dollar fundraiser attacking 47 percent of the country for seeing themselves as "victims" who depend on the government to provide for them.

Within 24 hours, some pundits were already arguing the video marked the end of Romney's presidential aspirations. "Today, Mitt Romney lost the election," blared a headline on Bloomberg News. The Telegraph proclaimed that "The spectacular implosion of Mitt Romney means a no-choice US election." Talking Points Memo said that "It's rare when the impact of some gaffe or embarrassment or revelation isn't overstated on first blush. But this may just be that rare exception. This tape strikes me as absolutely devastating."  

Maybe. But it's worth taking a step back to consider just how much impact other ostensibly devastating moments have had in the past. For context, John Sides, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University, took a look at similar moments from the past - including a number tied to Mr. Obama - and found that, in the end, they didn't end up mattering all that much.

"I tend to think that gaffes matter more for political junkies more than they do for the average undecided voter," he said. "And that's why we haven't seen big shifts in the polls after these other gaffes that took place in 2012."

Sides found no significant movement in the polls as a direct result of Mr. Obama's two so-called gaffes this presidential cycle - his "you didn't build that" comment and his claim that "the private sector is doing fine." He found the same when looking at Mr. Obama's 2008 gaffes, including the comment that some rural voters "cling to guns or religion" and the Jeremiah Wright scandal.

Sides acknowledges that the jury is still out on Romney's comments - it's only been one day, after all - and said they could have a significant impact if they dominate the news cycle for an extended period. But he adds that "in general presidential elections have not seen big shifts based on singular statements or misstatements by the candidate."

Of course, singular moments can have an impact on the campaign on ways that don't necessarily come through in the polls. This is particularly true when those moments play into certain narratives about the candidate. In 2000, for example, Americans started to see Al Gore as less than honest thanks to a series of comments, most famously his statement that he took "the initiative in creating the internet" while in Congress. (That moment is often misremembered as Gore claiming he "invented the internet.") In 2004, Republicans were successful in portraying John Kerry as a flip-flopper thanks in large part to his comment that he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." (The attacks on Kerry over the comment were not entirely fair, but it didn't matter - they helped codify the narrative that he too easily changed positions.)

A case can be made that Romney's "47 percent" comment will matter because it falls into this category - a moment that confirms the negative narrative being pushed by the opposition. (In this case, that Romney is an out-of-touch plutocrat who cares only for the rich.) But the case can also be made that the comment will fade relatively quickly from the public consciousness. Indeed, it may be all but forgotten by next month's debates, when Americans who have paid little attention to the campaign so far will start tuning in.

It's also worth noting that while many on the right are lamenting the comments, some say they could actually help the candidate. "What he ought to do is step up and embrace the basic division in our nation, including the fact that nearly half the country pays no income taxes," wrote National Review's Michael Walsh. "Acknowledge it -- and then explain why, morally, this is not a good thing. Why having no skin in the game while at the same time demanding a say in the proceedings at the federal level is fundamentally undemocratic." There's a big problem with this theory - most Americans have "skin in the game" even if they don't pay income taxes, since they pay payroll and other taxes. But it's certainly true that the message behind the 47 percent comments resonates with a portion of the GOP base, and could help galvanize Romney's supporters even as it alienates people that Romney said in the leaked video weren't going to vote for him in the first place.

No matter how the comment plays out, it's tough to argue with the notion that Romney is not running a particularly strong campaign so far. Mr. Obama leads in the polls despite economic indicators that suggest, based on past presidential outcomes, that he should be losing. Part of that is attributable to Mr. Obama's strengths as a politician. But part of it can be laid at Romney's feet: He has struggled to stay on message, has been unable to connect with a broad swath of the American people, and has not seemed to make an affirmative case for his candidacy. If Romney loses, it probably won't be directly traceable to "47 percent." But the comments will likely be one of many mistakes cited by Republicans as they lament four more years of President Obama.

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