Is '47 percent' comment sinking Mitt Romney's polls?

Gaffes don't typically have much effect, but Mitt Romney's secretly recorded remarks may have staying power. His polls started falling soon after his words went public – and continue to drop.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at American Legion Post 176 in Springfield, Va., on Thursday.

It’s been 10 days since Mitt Romney’s now-famous “47 percent” comments became public. Since then countless news stories have chewed over Mr. Romney’s secretly recorded assertion that 47 percent of US voters see themselves as “victims” and are too dependent on government to vote Republican. Are Romney’s words – plus the subsequent media focus – now dragging down his campaign?

Frankly, we’ve been skeptical the “47 percent” stuff would have a measurable effect on the polls. Individual events seldom do, no matter what the cable news chattering clique says. When asked directly, many voters may disapprove of such sentiments, but would that really make them more or less likely to vote Romney? Isn’t it more probable it would just reinforce what they already felt, one way or another?

Yeah, well, we’re reconsidering that now, for two reasons. The first is that Romney’s polls worsened fairly quickly after the comments came out. Take Gallup’s daily tracking poll, which has been a bit more pro-Romney than other national surveys. It’s a seven-day, rolling average of numbers. On Sept. 22, the day its sample consisted of people all contacted after Romney’s words became public, it went from a 46 to 46 percent tied race to a 2 point Obama advantage. Since then it has continued to widen. Yesterday Obama was up by 6, 50 to 44 percent.

As Josh Marshall, the generally liberal editor of TalkingPointsMemo, notes: That doesn’t really prove anything. “But the correlation is extremely tight.”

Looking at national poll averages, plus polls in the key states of Ohio and Florida, George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides sees a 1 percent swing to Obama from the day before the “47 percent” became public to Sept. 23.

“How confident am I that this 1% shift is due to 47%?” tweeted Mr. Sides, who previously has been skeptical of the comment’s immediate political effects. “Maybe 30%.”

But whatever the numbers say, it’s clear that the campaigns think the “47 percent” stuff could be electoral kryptonite. That’s our second reason. Look at what both campaign teams are actually doing: putting up ads that either highlight (Obama) or explain away (Romney) those fundraiser words.

Friday, for instance, the Obama campaign has released a new 30-second spot it claims will run in swing states. It contains nothing but Romney’s own words. While photos of US workers fade in and out, Romney talks about the 47 percent feeling entitled to “health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

The Romney campaign, for its part, has released a one-minute, "Too Many Americans” spot that highlights the ex-Massachusetts governor’s assertion of compassion.

“More Americans are living in poverty than when President Obama took office, and 15 million more are on food stamps,” says Romney, looking straight into the camera. “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them.... We should measure compassion by how many people can get off welfare and get a good-paying job.”

Of course, there are only a few weeks now until the election. At this point, the Romney campaign probably did not think it would still have to devote time and money to “Message: I care” ads, to paraphrase President George H. W. Bush.

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