Are Romney's '47 percent' comments beginning to move the polls?

At first glance, the latest polls don't look good for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. A Gallup survey shows his '47 percent' remarks cost him some support among independent voters. But it's weeks until the election, and that effect may not persist.

Charles Dharapak/AP
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.

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.

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