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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were guests Tuesday on ABC's 'The View.' The First Couple taped the show Monday after they arrived in New York for the opening of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama on 'The View': Should he have skipped it? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 09.25.12

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were guests Tuesday on ABC’s “The View,” the talk show with the numerous female hosts. It’s an appearance the First Couple taped Monday after they arrived in New York for the opening of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Mr. Obama also found time to jam in a quick appearance on NBC’s “Today” to talk education policy. But he hasn’t scheduled a one-on-one meeting with any of the foreign leaders who’ve come to New York for the UN festivities.

Critics have hit this state of affairs hard, saying that Obama is slighting foreign policy in favor of fluffy shows that aid his reelection effort. In particular they’ve complained about the fact that Obama declined a meeting request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The president’s unwillingness to meet with Bibi Netanyahu when he is in New York but instead willing to go on the ‘The View’ in New York – I mean, I think it speaks volumes to the lack of seriousness with which the president is taking the current situation,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a Monday conference call organized by the Romney campaign.

Should Obama have skipped sitting down with Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, et al?

First, we’d agree that “The View” appearance is reelection-related. As our colleague Gloria Goodale noted yesterday, softer news-like talk shows have become a favorite venue for the Obama campaign. They’re friendlier than a press conference, and guests benefit from the good feelings viewers have toward their favorite shows.

On "The View," for instance, Barack and Michelle got to indulge in a little First Couple Nick-and-Nora (look it up) banter about whether Michelle should run for office. Barack indicated she wasn’t temperamentally suited for the job, and, uh, Michelle agreed she’s not patient.

The president got to ruminate about what he’d do after his term, saying he’d like to work with young people. He talked guardedly about the murder of the US ambassador in Libya, walking right up to the edge of calling it a pre-planned terrorist attack.

Obama’s campaign team was probably pretty happy with the whole thing.

Second, we think the Netanyahu meeting is a separate issue. Obama did not turn that down due to time pressure. He did not want to do it for policy reasons. Now, one can argue about that – Romney says Obama is snubbing one of our most important allies – but “The View” really has little to do with that dispute.

As to meeting other leaders, Obama’s missing a chance to develop deeper personal relationships. An in-depth story in today’s New York Times notes that’s something Obama lacks in the Middle East in particular.

So yes, that may be a negative. But if you’re Obama, you may be thinking that the election is in six weeks, and if you lose, it doesn’t matter if your ties to the Saudi royal family are on the upswing.

Thus Obama is spending only 24 hours in the Big Apple. He spent Monday night at a UN reception where many other world leaders were present, noted White House spokesman Jay Carney. Tuesday he gave the traditional high-profile UN opening address by a US president.

“It’s a real moment for the US to assert its values and its leadership role,” Carney said Monday at a press briefing.

So what's the president doing instead of hanging around New York? On Wednesday, he heads out (surprise!) on the campaign trail. He’ll be going to Ohio, the most important of the battleground states in the 2012 election.

In this June 16 file photo, former President George W. Bush smiles as he takes in a baseball game in Arlington, Texas. (LM Otero/AP/File)

Is Bush making a comeback? Why two Democrats mention him uncritically.

By Staff writer / 09.25.12

Don’t look now, but President George W. Bush is making a comeback of sorts – in the service of two Democratic candidates for the Senate who are emphasizing bipartisanship.

There is the affable Dubya smiling with former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in a recent TV advertisement in Mr. Kaine’s race against another former Commonwealth governor, Republican George Allen.

“I don’t agree with any president all the time, but I know that when our nation succeeds, Virginia succeeds,” Kaine says in the ad, called “Partner,” that the campaign released last week.

“As governor, I worked with the Bush administration to build Rail-To-Dulles,” Kaine says of a long-awaited public transit line to the busy northern Virginia airport as a picture of Mr. Bush and Kaine flashes on screen.

Then, moving to an image of Kaine and the current president, he continues, “and with the Obama administration to stop an aircraft carrier from moving out of Virginia.”

Richard Carmona, the Democratic challenger for an open Senate seat in Arizona, has not one but two pictures with the second President Bush on his “Republicans for Carmona” Web page. Therein, Mr. Carmona touts being nominated for his tenure as US surgeon general by Bush back in 2002. (He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.)

Carmona, like Kaine, isn’t afraid to deviate from the party line – in one spot, Carmona says both parties have helped foul up the nation’s health-care system.

Both candidates are casting the 43rd president for clear reasons. In Virginia, Kaine has repeatedly contrasted his pragmatic approach with what he sees as the more bruising style of his opponent, Mr. Allen.

In Arizona, Carmona is fighting an uphill battle against the state’s GOP tilt and a savvy opponent in Rep. Jeff Flake and will likely need more than a few voters who vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to also cast their lots with him.

What is striking, however, is that the 43rd president of the United States is invisible to Mr. Romney’s presidential run, nor does he get a whiff of a mention in campaign ads for incumbent Republicans scrambling to distance themselves from a toxic Washington.

When Bush does show up in ads in those races, it’s usually for Democrats, but for reasons very much at odds with those of Kaine and Carmona. Instead of stressing bipartisanship, the ads trash Republicans for unpopular wars or the “failed policies of the past.”

The presidencies of both Bush presidents (41 and 43) were all but absent from the Republican National Convention, too, save for a video montage shown well out of prime time.

By drafting Bush 43 into their political service, both Carmona and Kaine are trying to back up a sentiment Kaine articulates clearly at the end of his ad: “I approve this message because Washington needs more partners and fewer partisans.”

'SNL' depicts undecided voters as dumb. Is that right?

By / 09.24.12

Saturday Night Live” has a new video out that lampoons undecided voters, and it’s pretty harsh.

Done in the style of a public service announcement from a good-government group, the skit starts with “This election will determine the future of our country, and this election will be determined by the Undecided Voter” on-screen.

Then “Catherine” appears in an office setting, saying “some of us are just a little harder to please. We’re not impressed by political spin or 30-second sound bites. Before you get our vote, you’re going to have to answer some questions.”

Cue the questions.

“Dave,” from his kitchen: “When is the election? When do we have to decide?”

“Andrea,” on an outdoor path: “What are the names of the two people running? And be specific.”

“Jonathan,” a hipster in front of a stoop: “Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?”

And so forth. You can see where “SNL” is going here. The questions get more outlandish, ending with a student working on his computer asking the camera, “where is my power cord”?

OK, we’ll bite. Are undecided voters really this clueless?

Well, not THAT clueless. It is unlikely that many of them wonder what oil is used for, as one character does in the skit. But the fact is that another term political pros use for determinedly undecided voters is “low-information voters”. (SNL gets to that too.) Most of them do not follow politics at all closely and have little to go on to make their electoral decision, as hard as that may be for news junkies to understand.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll took a deeper look at the undecided voters in three battleground states, for instance, and concluded that “these are voters who simply aren’t paying attention.” One third did not feel they knew enough to give President Obama a job rating, for instance.

Sixty percent of self-described undecided voters could not identify Speaker John Boehner as a member of the House of Representatives, according to a YouGov poll done for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.

Undecided voters are less partisan, less engaged, and only now starting to make up their minds for the 2012 vote, GOP pollster Whit Ayers said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told CNN’s Candy Crowley these voters may not even make it to the polls as they focus on other parts of their lives.

“They’re taking care of their kids, they’re working,” said Greenberg.

Right now the undecided share of the national vote is running at between five and seven percent, depending on the poll. Interestingly, that share may remain fairly constant.

Last December, the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project found that six percent of the electorate was undecided in a contest between Mr. Obama and (then potential) GOP nominee Mitt Romney. That’s about the same percentage that’s unsure of voting preference today.

But the six percent from recent polls and the six percent from last December are in fact different people – or at least, voters move in and out of the undecided category more often than many pollsters might assume, according to Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at UCLA and a co-principal investigator of the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.

By the beginning of September, about half of the voters who last December had proclaimed themselves undecided had moved to choose a candidate, wrote Vavreck in a post on the New York Times Campaign Stop blog. Of these, slightly more chose Obama than Romney.

Their choices seem to have been driven by their own party identification. “Even though undecided voters tend to be weaker partisans than those who make up their minds very early, party is still a potent force for them,” wrote Vavreck.

At the same time, about three to four percent of voters who said they’d made their choice abandoned it over the months, and moved into the undecided camp, according to interviews conducted by the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. That has kept the undecided category constant at six percent of total voters.

In this Sept. 12 image taken from video and provided by CBS, '60 Minutes' correspondent Steve Kroft speaks with President Obama, at the White House in Washington. The interview aired on '60 Minutes' Sunday night, Sept. 23. (CBS/AP)

Obama and Romney on '60 Minutes': What were the defining moments? (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.24.12

President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney both appeared on CBS's “60 Minutes” Sunday night. The interviews were taped separately, so the two men didn’t go at each other directly. But the juxtaposition made the whole thing seem like a predebate prior to the first official presidential debate on Oct. 3.

So how did they do? What were the most important statements?

First off, we’re not going to say either guy won or lost. Partisans from each side are pointing to quotes from the other and screaming “wipeout,” but we just don’t see it that way. Both Messrs. Obama and Romney tried to give detailed answers to tough questions, including follow-ups. If you’re still an undecided voter, you should watch the whole program. Might be a good basis for helping you make up your mind.

This said, the Obama answers that appear to have made the most news dealt particularly with foreign policy. Asked about pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the United States to set a red line beyond which Iran can’t go with its nuclear program, Obama said such outside comments are just “noise.”

“When it comes to our national-security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there,” Obama said, in the full quote.

Reporter Steve Kroft further pressed Obama on whether such events as the killing of the US ambassador to Libya have caused him to rethink his support for Middle Eastern governments that came to power as a result of the Arab Spring.

“The question presumes that somehow we could have stopped this wave of change. I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy.... But I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road,” said Obama.

Conservatives have pushed back hard on these comments, saying that describing the murder of Americans as “bumps in the road” is insensitive and that Israel is a close ally of the US, not a source of “noise.”

Liz Cheney – a former State Department official and daughter of Bush VP Dick Cheneytweeted that this exchange was “shameful,” for instance.

For his part, Romney appeared to have trouble with this question from reporter Scott Pelley: “Does the government have a responsibility to provide health care to the 50 million Americans who don’t have it today?”

Romney said the US does currently provide such care, in the form of free emergency-room care. “If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance and take them to the hospital and give them care,” said Romney.

Different states have different ways of handling this, said Romney, as some use clinics and some use emergency rooms. But liberals were quick to assert that this way of handling health care for the uninsured is expensive, inefficient, ineffective, and as burdensome to taxpayers as any national government program.

“Right, if you lack health insurance, you can’t receive regular medical treatment, but if your illness develops to the point where you are carted off to the emergency room, you will get treatment, though you will also get a bill that may ruin you financially,” wrote Jonathan Chait on Monday on his Daily Intel blog at New York Magazine.

In addition, Romney declined to provide any further details about his proposed tax plan, including which deductions he would get rid of to enable the federal government to lower tax rates without losing tax revenue.

When Mr. Pelley noted that the “devil is in the details” on tax policy, Romney seemed to agree that presenting his proposals as he does sugarcoats the hard choices involved. Though perhaps that’s not what he meant to do.

“The devil’s in the details,” Romney replied. “The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.”

There was other stuff to chew over: Obama admitted some of his political ads go too far, millionaire Romney defended his 14 percent federal tax rate as fair, and so on. Again, the whole interview, including the extra bits posted online, is one of the best side-by-side guides to the candidate we’ve seen yet. If there was a winner, it’s “60 Minutes” for showing once again what happens when skilled and prepared reporters conduct candidate interviews.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney speak at a campaign fundraising event in Dallas, Tuesday, Sept. 18. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Ann Romney tells Mitt's critics to 'Stop it.' Will they listen?

By Correspondent / 09.21.12

Maybe it’s a maternal thing. But we couldn’t help but sympathize somewhat when we heard Ann Romney’s latest attempt to defend her husband from his Republican critics, who have been vacillating between morose and merciless.

Yes, we know, Mitt isn’t Ann’s son. But there was something about the way she snapped “Stop it” that called to mind nothing so much as a mom who’s “had it up to here” with the snide comments being lobbed from the backseat.

In an interview with Radio Iowa Thursday, Mrs. Romney tried to lay down the law:

“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring. This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now, and it’s an important election, and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

The trouble with these comments, of course, is that they probably will give more fodder to critics who see Ann Romney as a clueless elitist. Telling Americans they just need to realize how “lucky” they are that someone as talented as her husband is willing to be their leader sounds sort of like when she told reporters that she and her husband had released “all you people need to know” when it came to their taxes. It’s got more than a whiff of noblesse oblige.

Still, as we said, it’s hard not to sympathize. For one thing, nearly everyone agrees that presidential campaigns are probably hardest on the spouses. Their schedule is nearly as brutal, but they aren’t necessarily as practiced in keeping on message. (Remember an irritated Teresa Heinz Kerry, Sen. John Kerry's wife, telling a reporter to “shove it?”)

Understandably, they also tend to take all the criticism more personally – particularly when it comes from would-be allies.

During the GOP primary campaign, Anita Perry, wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, got teary at an event with voters and confessed that it had been “a rough month,” after her husband had come under fire for some poor debate performances (and this was before the infamous “oops” moment). "We are being brutalized by our opponents, and our own party," she said.

What’s most interesting about Mrs. Romney’s comments is that – besides revealing just how difficult the past few weeks have been for the Romney family – she also may have inadvertently hit on the biggest factor behind her husband’s current predicament: He was never the party’s first choice, but no one else wanted to “get in the ring.”

It’s no secret that Mitt Romney has never been beloved by conservatives. The GOP nominated him because, to be blunt, he was all they had – the best (by far) of a weak field. And for all the sniping now about how “if Republicans can’t win against an incumbent as weak as President Obama, with an economy as weak as this” – well, it’s worth remembering that a whole line of potential A-list candidates, from Jeb Bush to Chris Christie to Marco Rubio, took a look at these same conditions and decided to pass.

So, Republicans can bemoan Romney’s “incompetent” campaign and his “tin-eared” candidacy. And we’re not saying they’re wrong. But on some level, his wife is also right: Running for president is hard. And Romney was willing to take a shot, when other party leaders were not.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney boards his campaign charter plane in West Palm Beach, Fla., Friday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Battleground state polls: Are there any positives for Mitt Romney?

By Staff writer / 09.21.12

There are a bunch of new battleground state polls in the news Friday morning, and at first glance they don’t look good for Mitt Romney.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll surveyed Wisconsin, Colorado, and Iowa for instance, and found President Obama ahead among likely voters in all three. And the leads aren’t margin-of-error stuff – Mr. Obama’s up by 5 points in Wisconsin, 5 points in Colorado, and 8 points in the Hawkeye State.

In Nevada, Obama’s up by 3 points, 49 to 46 percent, according to a recent CNN/ORC International survey. And in Michigan the margin is 9 points, 39 to 30 percent. (Thirty percent of likely voters in Mr. Romney’s home state remain undecided though, so there’s still room for that to change.)

At second glance these results still don’t look good for Romney. It’s not just the margins in these particular surveys – it’s the trend in key swing states as well. There have been 21 polls conducted in the 10 most important battleground states since the end of the Democratic convention, notes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver Friday, and Obama has led all.

“On average, he has held a six-point lead in these surveys, and he has had close to 50 percent of the vote in them,” writes Mr. Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog.

But here’s what we find interesting – national polls currently show a closer race. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Obama up by only 3.5 points, 48.4 to 44.9. And one of the largest, most professional surveys included in this average, Gallup’s daily tracking poll, on Thursday had Obama and Romney tied at 47 to 47 percent.

Since when have battleground states been less of a battleground than the nation as a whole?

We’ll examine the two possibilities:

THE STATE POLLS ARE RIGHT. It’s possible that the state polls are out in front and the national surveys just haven’t caught up to them yet. As Silver points out, the state surveys mentioned have generally been good ones that call cell phone numbers as well as landlines. RCP’s rolling average includes some polls conducted some time ago; most of the state polls are new, and may better reflect the political implications of recent events such as the conventions, attacks on US interests in the Middle East, and release of the secret video of Romney speaking at a fundraiser.

It’s also possible the state polls show the effects of the presidential campaigns. Both the Obama and Romney teams focus their money, time, and ads on battleground states, to the exclusion of others. If one side’s effort is more effective than that of the other, it might show disproportionate results in key places.  

THE NATIONAL POLLS ARE RIGHT. But look, you can’t just dismiss the full-USA surveys. They’re larger and tend to be perhaps more professionally run. “Larger” in this sense also can mean a larger pool of respondents, which aids accuracy. That might be the reason why Gallup, for instance, shows a different result.

Of course, Romney’s behind in national surveys, too. He just has a smaller margin to make up. His real problem is that it’s possible to win the national vote and lose the election. (Remember 2000?) The real path to victory is through the battlegrounds, where candidates try to put together state-by-state victories that lead them to the magical number of 270 electoral votes.

And time is ticking by. North Carolina has mailed out absentee ballots. Early voting starts Friday in South Dakota and Idaho. The election is in 46 days. Romney announced his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as running mate 41 days ago. As a ticket, their campaign is now about half-run.

President Obama greets people on the tarmac as he arrives at Tampa International Airport on Air Force One, Thursday, Sept. 20, in Tampa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Romney, Obama, and 'redistribution': How much do US taxes reallocate wealth? (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.21.12

To what extent do US federal taxes redistribute wealth? That’s a question that comes up because “redistribution” is a hot word in American politics at the moment. Republicans in recent days have been brandishing a newly released 1998 tape on which then-state Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois endorses the concept of government redistributing wealth from one group to another.

“I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,” says Mr. Obama on the 14-year old recording.

Yes, the GOP is pushing this to counter that video of Mitt Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans believe they are “victims” entitled to government aid. Yes, as our colleague Liz Marlantes notes, Mr. Romney supports some level of redistribution himself – unless he wants to end Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other transfer programs, as well as progressive taxation.

Still, we thought we’d take a look at the tax system itself to see what level of redistribution it contains as a means of beginning to explore how this concept works in the American political system.

In July, the Congressional Budget Office released a study that looks at this issue pretty thoroughly up through 2009, the latest year for which comprehensive tax data are available.

According to CBO, in 2009 the lowest quintile (20 percent) of US households accounted for 5.1 percent of the collective before-tax income. The middle quintile had 14.7 percent of before-tax earnings. For the top quintile, the figure was 50.8 percent.

That’s right – the top 20 percent of earners receive about 51 percent of the cash that’s flowing into US households.

Now let’s look at the share of total federal taxes these same groups paid out. The lowest quintile paid 0.3 percent of this tax burden. The middle quintile paid 9.4 percent. The top quintile paid 67.9 percent, according to CBO.

As you see, the share of US taxes owed by the lowest and middle quintiles is less than their corresponding share of national income. For the top 20 percent, the share of taxes is higher than their share of income.

This state of affairs is due to the fact that the US tax code is progressive. It taxes higher incomes at higher rates. Some of this money is then redistributed to lower-income households in the form of transfer payments: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance payments, and so on.  

So how has this gap changed over the years? Well, it bounces around a bit due to tax code changes and the state of the national economy. Perhaps we should take a look at figures from 1998 – the year Obama mentioned the “r” word on the new tape.

In 1998, the lowest quintile of households earned 4.9 percent of the nation’s income, and paid 1.4 percent of the federal tax burden. The middle quintile earned 14.1 percent of the cash, and paid 10.5 percent of the federal taxes. The highest quintile got 52.1 percent of the income and paid 64.1 percent of the taxes.

We’ll save you some eyestrain here – the distribution is about the same.

“Differences between before- and after-tax inequality are little changed since the mid-1990s,” concluded CBO analysts Ed Harris and Frank Sammartino in an August presentation to a National Bureau of Economic Research conference.

In light of that, why is “redistribution” a controversial political word? Well, to oversimplify, many Democrats are focused on the rapid income gains of the very top earners – the 1 percent – and the amount of money they’ve saved as a result of the Bush-era tax cuts. Some conservative Republicans argue that progressivity is wrong, and that a flat tax, in which every income is taxed at the same rate, would be a fairer way of administering the federal system.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Mitt Romney fact check: Is he actually against redistribution? (+video)

By Correspondent / 09.20.12

Scrambling to change the subject from his now infamous remarks calling 47 percent of the population “victims,” Mitt Romney has jumped on a newly uncovered (though actually very old) tape of then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama saying he believes in “redistribution” of wealth. Excerpts from the Obama tape first ran Wednesday on The Drudge Report – and at a fundraiser Wednesday in Atlanta, Mr. Romney went all-in on the attack:

"There are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America. There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago where the president said yes he believes in redistribution. I don’t. I believe the way to lift people and help people have higher incomes is not to take from some and give to others but to create wealth for all."

Let’s put aside the fact that the Obama tape is 14 years old – though, as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah points out, back then Romney was “still pro-choice, still pro-gun control, still pro-stem cell research, and still in favor of gays serving openly in the military.”

The real reason Romney’s attack is likely to be a flop is that the president’s remarks – when examined in full – aren’t likely to be seen by most Americans as particularly controversial. In fact, it's clear that Romney himself essentially agrees with much of what Mr. Obama said.

Here’s the complete text of Obama’s comments (as opposed to the shortened clip circulated by Republicans), which was tracked down by NBC News

“I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution – because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level – to make sure that everybody's got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities?”

First off, Obama’s statements about decentralizing delivery systems and fostering competition sound practically Republican (he was specifically criticizing the inefficiency of Chicago public housing and public schools). In context, he's actually arguing for a more streamlined system of government that employs free-market efficiencies and makes redistribution more effective – and by implication, more economical.

More to the point, however: In his attacks, Romney is treating “redistribution” in general as a dirty word – "He believes in redistribution. I don't" – when, in fact, it’s abundantly clear that Romney, too, supports redistribution, “at least at a certain level” (to use Obama’s own phrasing).

What would Romney call it when the government takes in tax dollars and uses them to pay for things like health care for poor folks? Is he saying he would eliminate Medicaid? We think not. Likewise, although Romney would tax the rich at a lower rate than Obama, his tax plan is still progressive.

As The New York Times’s David Firestone wrote Wednesday: “The government has long redistributed wealth, and … the country expects it to do so. That’s the point of a progressive income tax, which has been in effect for nearly a century…. The progressive tax remains so popular that Mr. Romney has promised to keep it, and he also insists he doesn’t plan to eliminate the safety net.”

Or as CNN’s Erin Burnett put it: “Mitt Romney, no matter what words he wants to use or what America he says he wants to believe in, believes in a progressive taxation system…. That is redistribution.”

Obviously, the real question – and a very legitimate one – is, how much redistribution is fair and best for society? In general, Democrats tend to want a little more, and Republicans tend to want a little less. But for Romney to pretend to be opposed to the entire concept of redistribution is totally untrue, based purely on what he himself says he would do as president.  

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participates in a Univision 'Meet the Candidates' forum with Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas in Coral Gables, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Are Romney's '47 percent' comments beginning to move the polls? (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.20.12

Mitt Romney’s fundraiser comment that he doesn’t worry about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes, and that those people are dependent on government and consider themselves “victims,” has been Topic 1 in US politics for days now. Polls are now starting to appear that take these words into account, and at first glance they don’t look good for the GOP standard-bearer.

For instance, according to a just-released USA Today/Gallup survey 36 percent of respondents who knew about the flap said Mr. Romney’s comment makes them less likely to vote for him. Twenty percent said it made them more likely to vote for him, while 46 percent said it made no difference.

“The immediate impact of Romney’s comments appears to be more negative than positive, which suggests that the comments could hurt Romney’s ultimate chances of winning the election,” writes Gallup editor Frank Newport.

But Mr. Newport added that the ultimate effect of the comment remains unclear, in part because today’s polarized media outlets are spinning the comments in very different ways. It’s possible, too, that Romney won’t lose as many votes over this issue as Gallup’s initial numbers imply.

One reason is that polls that ask whether particular things make someone more or less likely to do something aren’t that definitive. What’s “more”? What’s “less”? Ten percent more? Twenty percent less? What the question really measures is whether respondents believe the item in question is positive or negative.

And that response, in turn, is colored by what respondents were already leaning toward doing. You can see this in the details of Gallup’s numbers. The poll finds that 68 percent of Democrats say they’re less likely to vote for Romney due to the “47 percent” stuff, for instance. But pretty much all those people weren’t going to vote for him anyway.

Only 4 percent of Republicans said the comment would make them less likely to pull the lever for the former Massachusetts governor. Forty-four percent said it make them more likely to vote for him. But again, most of those Republicans were going to vote for their party’s nominee in any case.

The results for independents were arguably more indicative. Of these self-described swing voters, 53 percent said Romney’s recent words made no difference. Twenty-nine percent said they made them less likely to vote GOP, while 15 percent said it made them more likely.

That’s not a positive result for Romney, but it’s far from a disaster. According to these numbers, he’ll lose a few independent votes at the margin. But it’s still weeks until the election, so it’s possible even that effect won’t persist.

That point leads to the second reason Romney’s words won’t swing the election: Gaffes seldom do. As we’ve already pointed out, stumbles that seem game-changing to pundits on cable news often don’t make much difference to large numbers of real voters.

John Sides, a George Washington University associate professor of political science, has graphed poll responses to various 2012 stumbles, such as President Obama’s “private sector doing fine” statement, and he’s found they generally result in no movement.

“Hasn’t the 2012 campaign taught us not to jump the gun with various ‘gaffes’?” he writes on the Monkey Cage political science blog.

That does not mean the “47 percent” words won’t have an impact. It does mean they are but one gust in the windstorm that is a presidential campaign, and it is the whole storm that finally blows one candidate or another over the finish line first. (Can you think of a better metaphor? Feel free to let us know.)

Look at it this way: A new Pew Research poll finds that Mr. Obama has an astounding 43 percentage point advantage over Romney on the question, “Which candidate connects well with ordinary Americans?” Sixty-six percent of respondents answered that the incumbent US chief executive does. Twenty-three percent said Romney does.

The “47 percent” comment won’t help Romney close this gap, will it? In that sense it only solidifies the picture many voters have of him as a wealthy man who does not understand their problems.

One warning sign for Romney is that battleground state polls have not been good for him in recent days. New Fox News polls in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio have all shown Obama with substantial leads: 50 percent to 43 percent in Virginia, 49 percent to 44 percent in Florida, and 49 percent to 42 percent in Ohio.

Interviews for these Fox surveys were conducted Sept. 16-18. The “47 percent” story broke on the 18th, meaning they may also reflect – a bit – a negative initial reaction to the comments.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event in Atlanta, Wednesday, Sept. 19. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

For a change, how about a Romney rebound? (+video)

By Correspondent / 09.19.12

Is it time to start anticipating a Mitt Romney comeback?

When we ask this, we are by no means discounting what has been perhaps the worst stretch of the campaign for Mr. Romney to date. It’s been so bad that political observers (including many Republicans) have gone in the past few weeks from calling the race a dead heat – as they have virtually all year – to declaring Romney an official underdog.

But Romney’s bad stretch has been going on for so long now – with his campaign lurching from gaffe to gaffe, while outside Republicans snipe and wring their hands – that it just seems like, at some point soon, the narrative’s got to change.

Call it a law of presidential politics: Reporters who cover campaigns can only write the same story (“Romney is losing!” “Now he’s really losing!”) so many times before they start looking for a new angle. And often, voters start to root for the underdog.

Some of the pieces for a potential Romney comeback may already be in place.

For one thing, while the polling in a number of swing states has shifted in President Obama’s favor, that shift has also been small – hardly an insurmountable deficit for Romney to overcome. The media has given the polls a lot of attention because it’s the first time either candidate has seemed to hold a true lead, in a race where polling has generally been pretty static.

But already, many observers are calling for a reality check – particularly since some national polls seem to be closing again, with Gallup’s daily tracking poll today giving Mr. Obama just a 1-point lead. As ABC News's Rick Klein writes Wednesday: "National tracking polls have the race back to its pre-convention virtual tie, and the battleground state polls for the most part have Obama leads inside the margin of error. All of which means we could be just a few news cycles away from the Romney comeback – and all that panic would be running to the other side."

In addition, As Decoder’s Peter Grier wrote Wednesday morning, some conservatives now seem to be circling the wagons (though others are exhibiting something verging on despair). Many are encouraging Romney to turn his latest “gaffe” – his secretly recorded comments at a fundraiser, calling 47 percent of Americans “victims” who are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives – into a rallying cry. By drawing a clear contrast between himself and President Obama on the issue of government dependency, some argue Romney could actually come out stronger.

Last but not least, we'll say this outright: Romney has a great chance to win the debates. He's pretty much guaranteed to head into the October contests with low expectations – many Americans think of him as stiff and unlikable, a far less natural and convincing performer than Obama – which means that all he needs to do is seem slightly more personable and down-to-earth than he’s been made out to be, and it will be celebrated as a whole new Romney. And as we saw during the GOP primary season, Romney can actually be a very strong debater. If he stays on message and throws in a few good personal asides (funny and self-deprecating; no $10,000 bets) he could charm viewers and pundits anew.  

It may not be enough at this point, with just seven weeks left before Election Day. But we wouldn’t be at all surprised if Romney narrows the gap and makes it a race again.

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