Clinton's 'deplorables' slip: 2012 campaign hints it's not a game-changer

Past perceived gaffes, such as Romney's '47 percent' comment in 2012, have drawn far more attention from the media than from voters, who may make up their minds about candidates in other ways.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Darcy Butkus, from left, Becky Love, and Kathy Potts make a political statement at a town hall gathering hosted by Trump supporter and former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich at Kennesaw State University on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, in Kennesaw, Ga.

Hillary Clinton’s weekend comment that “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters are a racist and sexist “basket of deplorables” is still roiling the presidential race as the workweek begins. Lots of pundits are comparing it to Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” statement, in which he said nearly half of American voters can be written off as welfare moochers.

Lost in most of the discussion of this comparison is the fact that Romney’s “47 percent” words, revealed when a secret source leaked the tape of a fundraiser to Mother Jones magazine, didn’t much affect the 2012 outcome, and probably did not even move the polls that much.

That’s the political reality behind such moments as Mrs. Clinton’s “deplorables” or Romney’s “47 percent”: Voters usually don’t make up their minds from a few days of news coverage.

It’s true that many voters saw Romney’s perceived gaffe in negative terms. And it sure seemed like something that would have serious negative repercussions: harsh words, seemingly delivered in secret, about an opponent’s supporters. That made it seem more important than a typical political slip of the tongue.

But in terms of who people planned to vote for, “there was no consistent evidence that much changed” in the wake of the tape’s release, wrote political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA in their history of the 2012 election, “The Gamble.”

Gallup poll data showed President Obama’s lead over Romney actually shrank from 3 to 2 percentage points the week after “47 percent” became public. Rasmussen polls stayed the same. The average of all public polls was “stable” in the wake of the controversy, according to Sides and Vavreck.

In other words, peoples’ opinions about the race did not really alter, on either side.

In contrast, the first 2012 debate, held on Oct. 3, did move the polls. The media roundly declared Romney the victor over a flat Obama. Some surveys even put Romney in the lead. (Spoiler alert: He lost. The fallout of subsequent debates reversed those gains.)

What’s the takeaway from this? Maybe that lots of things the media says are game-changers, aren’t.

It’s certainly possible that Clinton’s “deplorables” comment could hurt her. Insulting ordinary voters is not something campaign consultants generally urge. But in general presidential races are not unstable. Leads shrink or widen slowly, driven by fundamentals such as the state of the economy, or predictable dynamics such as Republican voters rallying around Trump. At this point in the cycle, many people’s minds are set, and it takes a lot to change them.

There are break points, but they tend to be set news events that draw massive coverage. The conventions are one – Clinton jumped out to a big lead following the close of the Democratic National Convention. The debates might be another. Thus the first direct clash between Clinton and Trump, set for Sept. 26, is likely to be more consequential than Clinton’s insult.

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