Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney got into trouble this week for a leaked video of his remarks at a private fundraiser, where he indicted (and wrote off electorally) roughly half the country as government dependents subsisting on entitlements. The video prompted a hue and cry from media observers that Romney has (once again) blown the election. Their judgments are mitigated slightly by their multiple previous claims that Romney had already said something to blow the election. But the politics of Romney’s remarks may not be as bad as many in the media suggest.
Here’s the portion of Romney’s statement that attracted such disdain:
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 the 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. . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
As a general rule, political gaffes have an impact on elections when they separate a candidate from otherwise winnable voting segments. What helps Romney in this situation is that no one thinks they’re in that 47 percent, even if they are. No voter who was thinking of voting for Romney yesterday is standing up today saying, “When he’s talking about those entitled people, he’s criticizing me!”
Time and again, we’re told that a gaffe is a “game changer” that reframes an election. But polls rarely bear this out. In fact, the polling in this election has been remarkably consistent, regardless of whether the gaffe is Romney’s or Obama’s. Yet the media are trying to frame Romney’s remarks as a much broader attack on everyone who gets Medicare, or on every soldier. Mother Jones reporter David Corn, who publicized the fundraiser video, accused Romney of turning the election into “a battle between strivers (such as himself and the donors before him) and parasitic free-riders who lack character, fortitude, and initiative.” Most Americans think of themselves as strivers, though, not as moochers. Seniors and soldiers view Tricare, Medicare, and Social Security as something they’ve earned; they don’t think of it as an entitlement. And Romney continues to poll strongly among seniors—he’s up by 19 points in that group, according to the latest Rasmussen poll. How will criticizing half of Americans as lazy moochers hurt Romney with seniors? It’s a sentiment many Americans—not just seniors, not just conservatives, and not just those at the top financially—agree with. While Romney’s comment is a reminder of the candidate’s tin ear, it’s likely to be just another gaffe that changes little.