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Mitt Romney's 47 Percent Problem

Mitt Romney's 47 Percent Problem
9/18/2012 1:38 PM ET

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was revealed Monday to have made several explosive statements in a private fundraiser that was closed to the press in Boca Raton, Florida, in mid-May.

Videos of the event, which came after Romney clinched the Republican nomination, were provided to the liberal magazine Mother Jones.

In the most prominent video, Romney said that 47 percent of Americans "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

He added, "And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

This is bad for Romney. There are simply no two ways about that.

But some analysts and pundits, including Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, who called the video "devastating," and Bloomberg's Josh Barro, who said the election is over following the release of the videos, may have been a bit premature in their declarations.

It is not unheard of for a candidate to recover from what was initially proclaimed to be a campaign-ending revelation from a secretly taped source.

Case in point: then candidate, now-President Barack Obama was secretly taped by a supporter at a closed-press fundraiser in April 2008 saying that small town Pennsylvania voters, and many Midwesterners, "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Many at the time believed that Obama's quote could prove an end to his candidacy and would allow then-Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, to mount a comeback to overcome Obama's early lead.

History proved otherwise. Obama recovered, won the nomination and then the presidency.

But while Obama's case suggests that it is at least possible for Romney to recover, there are significant differences in both the substance and the circumstances of the two revelations that suggest Romney has a more difficult task ahead than Obama did.

First, and perhaps most importantly, is the timing of the tapes being released.

The Obama tape came out in April, when Obama was still seeking to clinch the Democratic nomination. The Romney clips have come out with less than two months remaining before the general election.

So while the Obama recording probably played a role in his nine-point loss in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary (roughly two weeks after the tapes were released), he had already established a significant lead in the delegate race to win the nomination and had a full six months before the general election.

Romney has far less time to attempt to manage his own fallout and does not start from a position of strength, lacking a significant lead in either nationwide polling or in the battleground states.

It should be noted that while Romney made the comments in May there does not seem to be any evidence that the tapes were withheld for greater impact on the election. In fact, there is at least some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the clips came out as soon as Mother Jones was able to verify their authenticity.

For example, the day Mother Jones posted its story, the Romney camp was already struggling to beat back reports in Politico of incompetence in its upper ranks and a conference call from the campaign promising to change the direction of the race by releasing more specifics of Romney's plans for his presidency drew derisive headlines for its own lack of details.

It seems likely that a Democratic operative intent on doing maximum damage to the Romney campaign would have waited, at least, for those smaller scandals to clear the news before revealing the damaging tapes.

Furthermore, some elements of the tapes seem to have been posted to YouTube anonymously in the weeks and months prior to Mother Jones' report, also suggesting that the magazine went with its story essentially as soon as possible after authentication.

On the substance of the tapes, there are also indications that Romney may have a more difficult task than Obama did.

In Romney's favor, his comments are stirring some support among the Republican base and conservative commentators in a way that Obama's remarks never did.

But Romney's remarks also seem to directly undercut what had been emerging as one of the central themes to his candidacy and political advertisements aimed at independents and disillusioned Obama voters from 2008.

Romney seemed to have been making the case that it was okay for voters to like Obama personally, even to have voted for him in 2008, but that they should vote for Romney in 2012 because events, both the slow economic recovery and tumult overseas, have since shown that Obama was out of his depth and a new direction is needed.

By implying that every Obama supporter envisioned a life of dependency on the government, Romney's candid remarks undercut that case, especially considering the large and specific 47 percent of the population he cited (Obama, by contrast, was referring to a much more narrow segment of the population and never put a number to his musings).

Perhaps even worse is the implication that Romney has given up on a large proportion of the nation, an implication that Democrats and the Obama campaign were swift to seize on.

In a statement released Monday, Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina called the quote "shocking" and said, "It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."

Romney himself sought to move away from those implications in remarks Monday evening, conceding that his case was "not elegantly stated" because he was speaking off the cuff.

"Of course I want to help all Americans have a bright and prosperous future and I'm convinced the president's approach has not done that and will not do that," Romney said.

He also said, "Of course individuals are going to take responsibility for their lives. My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again, particularly those who don't have work."

Despite the potential difficulty, there is certainly at least the possibility that Romney could recover or that events, perhaps even elsewhere in the world, could shift attention away from his damaging remarks.

Whether such a recovery is likely is an entirely different question.

And the important question of whether Romney can and will recover is one that will ultimately only be answered by voters in November.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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