I don’t think you can call it a turning point, because Barack Obama has enjoyed a small but durable lead for most of this campaign. But historians will note that the basic character of the 2012 presidential race changed 10 days ago, when video was released of Mitt Romney expressing disdain bordering on contempt for some 47 percent of the American people, and doing so in a private meeting with fellow wealthy Americans.
As Romney saw it, that 47 percent had decided to become victims and were content to live off the work of others. They could not be redeemed, and they certainly couldn’t be reached by Republican themes of small government and personal responsibility.
You knew the thing had the potential to be big when the Romney campaign called a late-night, unplanned press conference to respond to it. But rather than minimize the damage, that press conference multiplied it. In his comments, Romney could not and did not repudiate the basic thrust of what he had told his donors, because to do so would be to repudiate the basic thrust of the Republican platform. Instead, he confessed that his remarks were “not elegantly stated,” as if a more elegant phrasing would have made it all seem better. His running mate, Paul Ryan, later called them “obviously inarticulate,” again suggesting that it was the phrasing, rather than the content, was at fault.
This, in other words, was not a case of a candidate accidentally saying something that he didn’t really mean, as in Romney’s “I don’t care about the poor” statement or Obama’s “You didn’t build that.” This was a case of Romney accidentally saying what he DID mean. And for millions of Americans who might have been on the fence about the race, or who had only vague notions of which way they might vote, that struck home. It cemented the already existing image of Romney as an arrogant corporate exec with little compassion for those struggling through the hardest times in some three generations.
That image had always been Romney’s Achilles’ heel. Newt Gingrich’s brief star turn in the primaries came when he attacked Romney at that weak point, referring to him as a “vulture capitalist” and Bain Capital as “rich people figuring out clever, legal ways to loot out a company.” As I noted back in February, Romney’s unfavorable numbers jumped 15 to 20 points in the two-week period in which Gingrich was allowed by fellow Republicans to press that point.
In the video, Romney tells the world that yes, that’s exactly who he is. That’s when the polls began to swing pretty dramatically. And Obama continues to work that theme, trying to drive the stake deeper.
“I don’t think we’re going to get very far if we’ve got leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims who don’t take responsibility for their own lives,” he said yesterday in Ohio. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Ohio, and I haven’t seen a lot of victims. I see a lot of hardworking Ohioans. I see students trying to work their way through college. I see single moms, like my mom, putting in overtime to raise their kids right. I see senior citizens who have been saving their entire lives for retirements, veterans who served this country bravely, soldiers who defend our freedom today.”
Working-class Ohio is critical to Romney’s hopes — no Republican has ever become president without it — and it’s no coincidence that in the 10 days since the video’s release, the Ohio race has broken strongly in Obama’s favor, with the incumbent now holding a high-single-digit lead. The video and the backlash it inspired have also seemed to have an impact on Romney himself, making him defensive and draining him of the self-assurance that every campaigner feeds upon. His best remaining shot at turning this around comes Oct. 3, at the first presidential debate in Denver, where you can bet the issue of that 47 percent will be raised once again.
Romney has to find a convincing way to respond, and so far he shows no sign of doing so.
– Jay Bookman