November 2012: Romney’s 47% Problem

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Whatever chances former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had of winning the Presidency died on May 17, 2012 when he addressed a group of wealthy GOP donors in Boca Raton, Florida and talked candidly about the “entitled” 47% of Americans he believed would never vote for him. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he claimed.

Romney’s dismissive comments were secretly recorded and they surfaced in the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones in September.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who 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—that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney’s remarks were particularly damaging because they re-enforced the narrative that he was a plutocrat who didn’t care for the common man, one cultivated through the spring and summer by the Obama campaign. In fact, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod couldn’t have scripted it better as a way to alienate working-class voters.

The Obama campaign fashioned a television commercial from Romney’s off-the-cuff speech and played it repetitively in Ohio, New Hampshire, and other swing states. The strength of the commercial was its simplicity—the video of Romney in “his own words.”

How much did Romney’s comments help to determine the final outcome of the election?

There are multiple theories floating around that look to explain President Obama’s victory and Romney’s loss. The Obama campaign’s ability to bank early votes and to systematically deliver targeted Democratic voters to the polls has to be seen as one of the most important factors in the 2012 Presidental election. Obama’s total vote total dropped, but the turnout by Hispanics, young voters, and African-Americans proved critical in states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio.

There’s no doubt that Hurricane Sandy interrupted whatever momentum the Romney team had in the last week of the campaign, and praise of the President by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his performance during the crisis helped his cause.

Yet it’s also true that Romney’s comments about the 47% made it easier for the Democrats to characterize him as the candidate of Big Business, Wall Street, and the very wealthy. It’s a key reason Romney couldn’t ever close the gap in Ohio, a state Republican candidates need to win if they hope to capture the White House.

Romney lost the key swing states by thin margins in the popular vote (Florida by 1 percent, Ohio by 2, Virginia by 3, and Colorado by 4). If he had not been type-cast as an insensitive “vulture capitalist,” could Romney have won enough working class votes to change the outcome? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Romney won’t be able to shake the 47% meme—it was, ironically, also his national popular vote total.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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