Mitt Romney’s video gaffe is not fatal. But he needs to recover his focus fast.
This was supposed to be the week when Mitt Romney silenced his critics and recaptured the initiative in the presidential race, after months on the back foot. What with Barack Obama re-establishing a poll lead of a couple of percentage points, and with just seven weeks to go before election day, Mr Romney’s advisers had decided it was time to unveil a more pointed pitch. But no sooner had they promised more “specifics” than footage emerged of Mr Romney getting all-too-specific at a fund-raising event in Florida in May.
In the blurry clip, Mr Romney told a group of rich donors that “Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” (has he ever met any?), and so America’s only option was to “kick the ball down the field”. He suggested that if his father had really been Mexican (rather than born to Mormon exiles in Mexico), he would have had the election sewn up. His diplomatic credentials assured, he then lamented that Mr Obama spent so much time pitting “one American against another”, before explaining that the 47% of Americans who did not pay income tax “believe that they are victims” and could not be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”. This feckless bunch, he averred, “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…and they will vote for this president no matter what.”
Mr Romney is quite wrong, as it happens, about who those not paying income tax are, who those receiving “entitlements” are, and about how they all vote. Over half of those he condemned have jobs, and pay payroll taxes, but earn too little to be subject to income tax as well. Another 20% are retired. Only 8% of households pay no federal tax at all, usually because their members are students, disabled or unemployed. The biggest share of government benefits, meanwhile, goes to the elderly, in the form of Medicare and Social Security. (If you count tax breaks for mortgages and health insurance as government hand-outs, the rich are big spongers.) Only 13% of households receive food stamps, and only 5% benefit from public housing.
Democrats crowed that Mr Romney had written off half the electorate as parasitic loafers. What is more, many of the people he despairs of tend to vote Republican, including the older ones and those for whom social issues are paramount. It is never a good idea to insult people whose votes you want, as Mr Obama learned in 2008 when he described small-town Pennsylvanians as clinging bitterly “to guns, or religion, or to antipathy to people who aren’t like them”. The Romney campaign’s efforts to change the subject to a 14-year-old recording in which the president says, “I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level,” came to naught.
There is little reason to imagine, however, that Mr Romney’s comments will have a direct impact on the outcome of the election. Most of those who are politically engaged enough to parse them will have already made up their minds. After Mr Romney was roundly condemned by left- and right-wing pundits alike for playing politics with the deaths of four American diplomats in Libya last week, his polling actually ticked up slightly. That was probably due more to the fading of Mr Obama’s post-convention bounce than to anything Mr Romney himself had done, but it suggests that the media are more likely than voters to work themselves into a lather over a candidate’s impolitic remarks.
Nonetheless, all the fuss about Mr Romney’s gaffes has hindered him from disseminating his own message, and has clearly unsettled the Republican grandees on whom he relies for donations and logistical support. Since midsummer, Mr Romney has been trying to quell anxiety on the right that his singled-minded strategy of harping endlessly about the poor state of the economy was insufficient to unseat Mr Obama. His campaign at first dismissed the carpers as “bedwetters”. But it has since resorted to all manner of gestures to accommodate them, from the selection as his running-mate of Paul Ryan, an outspoken advocate of entitlement reform, to this week’s instantly forgotten relaunch.
The race still stands where it has for the past five months or so, bar some gyrations around the conventions. Mr Obama enjoys a slight but consistent lead. More ominously for Mr Romney, the president’s personal approval rating and voters’ assessment of his economic stewardship are improving. These advantages are far from insurmountable, but Mr Romney will not be able to overcome them if he cannot settle on a strategy and pursue it without distraction.