Mitt Romney 'victim' remarks: a game changer?

Barack Obama's 'guns or religion' gaffe didn't flip votes. Gaffes seldom do. But many voters question whether Mitt Romney 'understands the problems of people like me' – and his claim that 47 percent of Americans 'believe they are victims' doesn't help.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters about the secretly taped video from one of his campaign fundraising events.

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.

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