Thursday, 20 September 2012

Locking in perception

Much has been said about Mitt Romney's "47 percent" moment. If you happen to live in a cave, here's the original quote, which somewhat speaks for itself:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Now, this was said in private, but of course in the 21st century there is no such thing as private, it simply doesnt exist. A sensible candidate would keep that firmly in mind and ensure that when speaking at any event like this his comments are at least somewhat moderated by the assumption someone is recording them. But that assumption clearly wasn't being made here, which is unfortunate for Romney.

Personally, I think this is a survivable mistake, because the simple fact is that it says nothing about Romney which lots of people didn't already believe, and he's right those people were never going to vote for him. The problem is that this election is likely to swing on a very small number of swing voters:
In spite of clich├ęs about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate. 
Assuming that 2.5% percent lean each way (probably not true) Romney's comments will have served to convince the Democrat leaning group that he is what they suspect but might have been willing to forgive. When the vote is sliced as thinly as it is this year, that's a major problem.

Salon writer Steve Kornacki made a very sensible comparison to Gordon Brown in the last British election:
This is why on “The Last Word” last night I suggested that the best parallel for the Romney story comes from recent British political history — the 2010 incident in which then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on an open mic disparaging a woman he’d just met as “bigoted.” Brown and his party, like Romney and Paul Ryan now, were running from behind, and the story both reinforced Brown’s image as a cold and arrogant man and completely overwhelmed news coverage at a critical moment for him.
It's hard to imagine that Romney can easily come back from where he is right now because although this one incident is unlikely to hurt him in terms of driving voters away it will have locked out critical swing voters he was relying on to bring him closer to Obama and who are hard to reflect accurately in polling data.

Certainly the next week will be critical, as Romney seeks to get the message back on track and control it, something which he has struggled to do to date.


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