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.
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.
IN PICTURES: On the campaign trail with Romney and Ryan
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
IN PICTURES: On the Campaign Trail with the Romney-Ryan ticket
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.
IN PICTURES: On the Campaign Trail with the Romney-Ryan ticket
Mitt Romney’s “victims” tape is bad news for his campaign, runs Washington’s conventional wisdom. It doesn’t do to dismiss 47 percent of America as too dependent on government, in this view, and it’s even worse to say “[my] job is not to worry about those people.”
Democrats are gleeful about what they judge to be an electoral game-changer. Some Republicans are running for cover – Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, for instance, was quick to disassociate himself from Mr. Romney’s expressed views.
But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? Is it possible this faux pas could actually be good for the Romney campaign?
That’s what some conservatives are arguing Wednesday morning. They say that while Romney’s comments may have been badly put, the whole uproar has handed the ex-Massachusetts governor an opportunity to refashion his campaign message and to emphasize that he wants to lessen the power of government, while President Obama wants to increase it.
“Lemonade out of lemons? If he can refine and hammer home,” tweeted conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, a staunch Romney supporter, on Wednesday.
It isn’t as if the Romney train had been humming on an open track. In recent weeks his campaign has been beset by so many problems, self-made and otherwise, that Politico tagged him “man of constant sorrow.” Remember his botched trip to London? Clint Eastwood’s strange GOP convention appearance? The flap about his hasty statement on the Middle East riots, which we won’t even begin to try to describe?
As the “constant sorrow” song goes, “for six long years, I’ve been in trouble. No pleasure here on Earth I find.” (It hasn’t actually been six years, but it might seem that long if you’re a Romney campaign official.)
In this context, a candidate needs to find an opening where he can get it, to paraphrase Ms. Rubin’s post on the subject Wednesday at Right Turn.
“The Romney-Ryan campaign quite correctly, I think, has seen that while there were certainly problems with how Romney spoke to his donors about the 47 percent, the terrain on which he now finds himself is exceptionally favorable,” writes Rubin.
This terrain, according to Rubin and other conservatives, is ground on which Romney should compare his desire for an opportunity-based society with Mr. Obama’s government-centric approach.
Many people are not in the 47 percent by choice, and they recognize that they are there due to Obama’s economic policies, according to Erickson. They don’t think Romney was talking about them when he used the word “victims.”
“I think the media and the left have badly misread the American mood on this,” writes Erickson.
Conservatives are further heartened by the release of audiotape on which then-state Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in 1998 says, “I actually believe in redistribution, at least to a certain level to make sure everybody’s got a shot.”
Romney himself has an op-ed in Wednesday's USA Today that attempts to make this pivot away from the literal content of his words toward a more general and more positive message.
Government does have a role to play in helping Americans, writes Romney, but not in the manner the current administration intends. Rather, it “creates the space” for people to pursue their own goals. “Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty,” writes Romney.
But Democrats won’t let Romney easily distance himself from the actual words he used on the already-infamous fundraiser tape. The pro-Obama "super PAC" Priorities USA Action already has an ad up Wednesday using snippets of the tape, including the “victim” remark and the Romney statement of his self-described 47 percent that “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility.”
In the video GOP presidential nominee Mr. Romney talks about the difficulties of winning over people he says are “dependent” on government and see themselves as “victims.”
“Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect,” he said.
Romney’s right about the non-income-taxed slice of Americans. It’s an issue that conservatives as a whole have been talking about for some time. About 46 percent of US households owed no income tax in 2011, according to an estimate from the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center. In 2008 and 2009 – the epicenter of the Great Recession – that figure was even higher, at 51 percent.
That last figure hints at one aspect of this number – it’s been boosted quite a bit by recent hard economic times. In 2007, the figure was 40 percent, which is closer to its recent historic level.
Still, 47 percent is a lot of people. Who are they?
Well, about half of them don’t owe income tax for the simple reason that they don’t make enough money. A couple with two children with income of $26,400 had no income tax liability in 2011, due to an $11,600 standard deduction and four exemptions of $3,700 each, according to the Tax Policy Center (TPC).
“The basic structure of the income tax simply exempts subsistence levels of income from tax,” wrote TPC’s Roberton Williams in an analysis of these figures last year.
The other half of the untaxed (that’s equal to about 23 percent of total US households, just to confuse you with more figures) claims their status due to particular tax breaks.
Many of them are seniors who benefit from the exclusion of some Social Security income. The elderly make up about one-fifth of all non-income-tax-payers. The other big chunk is parents who benefit from tax credits for children and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Support for the EITC often splits along party lines, with Democrats pushing for a bigger such refundable tax credit, and Republicans pushing to curb or even eliminate it. But as Keith Hennessey, director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, points out, it is the child tax credit that has driven the increase in the numbers of non-income-tax-payers in recent years, as the value of the credit on a per-child basis has risen rapidly under presidents of both parties.
“Most of the increase since the mid-1990s in the number of people who owe no income taxes is the result of the child tax credit,” Mr. Hennessy writes on his personal blog. “This policy was created by Congressional Republicans and expanded with Republicans in the lead.”
One last note: paying no income tax is not the same thing as paying no federal taxes. Many zero-liability households still ante up for payroll taxes that fund Medicare and Social Security, among other things. According to an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, even the lowest quintile of US income earners pay about 9 percent of their income to Uncle Sam in payroll tax.
“When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average,” according to the CBPP.
Mother Jones magazine on Monday published a clandestine video of a Mitt Romney fundraiser at which the GOP nominee said that 47 percent of US voters “believe they are victims” entitled to government support and that “my job is not to worry about those people."
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Mr. Romney told donors, according to the tape.
Umm, OK. Is this a game changer for the election? The liberal blogosphere erupted Tuesday with charges that this apparent disdain for half of American voters disqualifies Romney from the presidency. Some conservatives have defended the statements, saying they accurately reflect a culture of dependency, while others have basically thrown up their hands.
Conservative William Kristol, writing in The Weekly Standard, said Romney’s comments were “arrogant and stupid,” for instance. (To be fair, he equated them with Barack Obama’s statement at a fundraiser four years ago that rural voters “cling to guns or religion.")
Well, Romney’s polarizing statement may not be good for the future of American political discourse. But it is unlikely by itself to make any difference in the polls.
That’s because individual controversial statements seldom do. If ever. Over at the Monkey Cage blog on Tuesday, George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides has posted data making this point.
In 2008, for example, Mr. Obama’s “guns or religion” statement had no discernible effect on voter presidential preference. In 2012, other things that the press widely judged to be gaffes, such as Obama’s “the private sector is doing fine” statement, similarly made no difference. After Romney issued his controversial statement saying the Obama administration “sympathized” with Middle Eastern anti-American rioters, the polls actually moved in Romney’s favor – though as Mr. Sides notes, that is most likely because of the natural tightening caused by the fading of Obama’s convention bounce.
“The best case for saying that ‘gaffes matter’ is that actual voters are persuaded to change their minds because of the gaffes. If they don’t, then it’s tough to argue that ‘gaffes’ are really ‘game-changers.' And, in fact, usually voters don’t change their minds,” writes Sides.
However, in our view this doesn’t mean that the video won’t make Romney’s road steeper. Voters carry a picture of each candidate in their minds, produced by numerous bits of information, and right now, Romney is generally not seen as empathetic. He’s far behind Obama on such measures as “understands the problems of people like me."
The Romney campaign has worked hard to try to change that image, with Ann Romney in her convention speech talking about their early married years, and the candidate himself fleshing out his biography in his acceptance speech. That’s now perhaps gone with the wind. In the fundraiser video, Romney sounds like a main character from Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, “Atlas Shrugged."
“The video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined,” writes Jonathan Chait, in his New York Magazine blog. “Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party.”
If Romney does win, it may be because voters have decided that other factors outweigh his Richie Rich image, not because the image itself has softened.
At a press conference Monday night, Romney stood by his remarks but added that they were “not elegantly stated."
He then framed his statement, not as an attack on a particular segment of voters, but as an ideological discussion.
“Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits, or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?” said Romney.
Senior adviser Ed Gillespie in a conference call with reporters said Mr. Romney is shifting to provide voters with more specifics about his policy plans. Voters “are eager to hear more details about policies to turn our economy around,” said Mr. Gillespie, adding that Romney won’t outline new plans so much as “reinforce” proposals he’s already issued.
The “timing is right” for this move, added Gillespie, as millions of voters are now tuning in to Campaign 2012 after the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
As to what this might mean in practice, an ad posted Monday on YouTube by the Romney team provides a hint. Titled “The Romney Plan," the 40-second ad lists the main categories of Romney’s longtime economic plan: new trade agreements and a crackdown on Chinese trade cheating; deficit reduction; and tax and regulation reductions that help small business.
Gillespie also listed some of Romney’s preexisting energy positions as the sort of thing that might get a bigger push in days ahead. Romney would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, allow more exploration for oil and drilling on federal land, and so forth. These are “specifics that people go, ‘Oh, I see, that’s how you could get to be energy independent by 2020,' ” said Gillespie.
Candidates have lots of different strategies for lots of different things, so it’s hard to judge whether Romney’s Boston team has really changed its overarching view of the election. We’d think they probably haven’t, given that they’re not talking about any sort of real departure from things they’ve said before.
But what this does appear to be is a shift in communications strategy to try to refocus the election on the economy and where it's headed.
Why? Well, it’s possible Romney is just trying to turn the mainstream media’s narrative of the race. A big story in Politico about infighting among his top aides is something he’d surely love to bury. Perhaps worse, some recent polls have shown that President Obama has drawn even with Romney on the measure of which candidate voters would trust to handle economic issues.
But we’d bet that Team Romney has thought about this move a bit more broadly than that. We think it’s possible it is really driven by the calendar, and the looming presidential debates.
The debates might be Romney’s last chance to shake up the race. By repeating his own policy proposals, he may be trying to set up a comparison with Mr. Obama on specifics. He wants to present himself as the leader with a plan for the future, while the incumbent is just a tired force who’s clinging to the things he tried in the first four years.
At the Democratic National Convention, Obama in essence said he needed more time to finish the job he’s already started. Ex-President Bill Clinton made that argument most forcefully, saying nobody could have cleaned up the mess Obama inherited in just one term.
But can’t you see where Romney might be going here? He’s trying to set up the debates so he can turn to Obama and say, in essence, “This is my plan. What do you propose that hasn’t already been tried?”
Gillespie hinted at this approach during his conference call, saying voters are also curious about Obama and what he might do in a second term if reelected.
“They haven’t heard many details from him or many policy proposals at all from him,” said Gillespie.
This may sound like a long shot on the part of the Romney campaign, but remember, the election is now only weeks away. As Davidson College election expert Josh Putnam notes Monday on his Frontloading HQ blog, the problem Romney faces is that it can be difficult to oust an incumbent president in an electoral environment that is challenging but offers that incumbent some hopeful trends to highlight.
That’s why the campaign horse race has been so stable for months, with Romney always just a tick behind.
“The Romney campaign is in the same position plenty of underdog candidates/campaigns have been [in]: behind and looking for the right combination of things to right the ship. There isn’t an easy out and ... time is running short,” writes Mr. Putnam.