Romney’s “47 percent” remarks haven’t destroyed his campaign. But will they keep him from winning?

If, like Mitt Romney, you insult 47 percent of the American public by suggesting they are moochers, shouldn’t your poll numbers plummet?


Mitt Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Why haven’t we seen significant damage to Romney numbers in the horserace polls?

In fact, most Americans have negative views about what Romney said (54 to 32 percent, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll). At the same time, however, the Republican nominee is still close behind Obama in the latest Real Clear Politics national average — 48.9 for Obama to 44.6 for Romney.

Why hasn’t Romney crumpled?

The answer may be that the GOP nominee’s remarks will not drastically erode his numbers, but rather have become a millstone that prevents him from overtaking Obama in the polls.

To the existing burden of Romney’s own words, of course, will be added the considerable weight of attack spots casting the whole episode in the worst light. This devastating Obama spot, for example, is now running in 11 swing states.

As I argued in a blog post last May, Romney’s situation is very much like Barry Goldwater’s in 1964, after he made a string of reckless remarks about nuclear war.

In Goldwater’s case, there were jokes about lobbing a missile into the men’s room of the Kremlin. He called the nuclear bomb “merely another weapon.” He speculated about defoliating the forests of South Vietnam with nuclear bombs. He opposed the nuclear test ban treaty. He wrote a book, The Conscience of a Conservative, in which he ridiculed those who feared a conflict with the Soviet Union. And he favored giving the NATO commander in Europe authority to launch a nuclear attack without White House approval.

Goldwater for President

Goldwater for President (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Goldwater, in short, went out of his way to portray himself as a person who could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. By the time of the election, that dreadful image was his indelible public persona.

In Romney’s case, his “47 percent” remarks weren’t the first time he made himself seem aloof and out of touch.

Recall earlier this year when he expressed hopes that quarterback Peyton Manning wouldn’t head to the New England Patriots. “The owner of the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, both owners are friends of mine,” he explained. To many, that remark was similar to Romney’s earlier comment at the site of the Daytona 500, that “some great friends . . . are NASCAR team owners.”

Add to those remarks, the following: “I’m not worried about the very poor”; “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me”; “Corporations are people, too”; “Rick, I’ll tell you what — ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”; and, “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired.”

Like Goldwater, Romney’s most recent remarks really haven’t added much new to his public persona – except the additional weight that may prevent him from gaining much ground with undecided voters. (And, of course, the timing of the video’s release could not have been worse.)

As Jonathan Chait observed today in New York magazine, “The size of the political damage Romney has incurred is beside the point. He was trailing narrowly, but in a polarized electorate with a tiny number of undecided voters. Not only has he turned some of those undecided voters against him, but he’s blown up his bridge to reach them.”

It also doesn’t help Romney that, after initially doubling down on the fateful remarks, he waited a full nine days before finally airing a spot that attempts to address the damage.

If you want to understand how all this may play out in the coming weeks, it would be useful to examine the 1964 Goldwater campaign, particularly the impact of TV spots by President Lyndon Johnson depicting Goldwater as a dangerous cowboy who would blow up the world.

As I explain in my book on that campaign, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics, the famous “Daisy Girl” spot and Johnson’s other hard-hitting attack ads didn’t inflict quite the damage that many presume. “Daisy Girl,” for example, was simply not responsible for killing Goldwater’s candidacy.

The evidence, instead, suggests that the work of branding Goldwater a reckless extremist was the work of Goldwater himself–in books, statements, and speeches over several years.

By the time he won the Republican nomination in July 1964, the question was not whether Johnson could persuade a substantial portion of the electorate that his rival from Arizona was an extremist. Rather, it was whether Johnson could demonstrate why a President Goldwater’s extremism would be a threat to world peace. Johnson’s case was only made easier when at the GOP convention Goldwater memorably embraced the label of extremist.

If Goldwater was the potter of his image, spinning his public persona into the shape of a bellicose radical, Johnson’s campaign and the spots by Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB)–the Madison Avenue firm hired by the DNC to run Johnson’s ad campaign–merely served as the kiln, baking that image into something hard and durable.

Indeed, public opinion surveys before and after the election indicate that instead of knocking out Goldwater, the barrage of negative Johnson spots may have kept him pinned to the mat, unable to rise to fight, during the critical post–Labor Day campaign period.

But being knocked out or pinned down doesn’t make much difference in boxing or political campaigns. They are both certain paths to defeat.

But to say that LBJ’s attack spots destroyed Goldwater’s campaign would be to argue that the Republican candidate was ever actually standing and in the fight.

The polling data suggest that he was not.

While the final margin of victory was narrower than polls taken in late 1963 might have indicated, Goldwater’s poor campaign organization, his image as a radical, and his unfortunate rhetorical blunders never allowed him to get a full hearing from the vast majority of American voters.

Most significant is that the Daisy Girl spot and the other LBJ ads, which began airing on September 7, did not affect Johnson’s or Goldwater’s poll numbers in either Harris or Gallup polls. In a Gallup poll conducted in late August, Johnson led Goldwater 68 to 26 percent. In another Gallup survey conducted September 18–23, in the midst of the barrage of spot, the numbers had changed little. Johnson led Goldwater 67 to 29 percent—a three-point increase for Goldwater.

Before the Daisy Girl spot, a Harris poll showed Goldwater’s support at 32 percent—the exact percentage he garnered in a poll after the Daisy Girl spot aired. His support in the October Gallup poll remained constant at 29 percent. In the Harris poll, he moved up two points to 34 percent. On Election Day, Goldwater increased his final percentage to 38.5 percent.

So, instead of undermining his existing support, it appears the skillful LBJ spots prevented any substantial growth in Goldwater’s poll numbers. The spots’ real impact may have been to harden the image of Goldwater as a threat to world peace.

Now, Romney is not Goldwater. Unlike the 1964 GOP nominee, Romney has been within striking distance of Obama, and sometimes tied with him, throughout the summer and fall. This is 2012, not 1964. And the issues at stake are very different.

But some of parallels are striking.

  • Both made unfortunate statements that indelibly branded them with a persona they could not undo.
  • Both waited much too long to address or recant their embarrassing statements.
  • Despite the damage done by their unfortunate remarks, and the subsequent attack spots, neither appeared to suffer significant erosion of support in national surveys (public state polls were rare in 1964, so it is impossible to compare the effects in the respective swing states).
  • Both had opponents who skillfully threw those statements back at them and used them to solidify and amplify existing perceptions. In Goldwater’s case, it was as a trigger-happy cowboy; in Romney’s case, a heartless plutocrat.

Should Romney lose the election, it won’t be the “47 percent” remarks, alone, that crushed his hopes of winning. But those unfortunate words and Obama’s skillful response to them may be remembered as the millstone that prevented Romney from rising in the polls.

In his history of the 1964 campaign, The Making of the President, 1964, journalist Theodore White talked about the weight of Johnson’s attacks on Goldwater. He likened the Republican nominee’s experience to having “a heavy mattress” thrown over him, “and he lay buried under it, trying to wriggle his way out.”

If Goldwater spent the latter months of the campaign being smothered, it was only partly Lyndon Johnson’s doing. The weighty mattress—or millstone–of fear and uncertainty may have made it difficult for Goldwater to get his campaign moving; that heavy weight, however, was largely one of Goldwater’s own making.

As White wrote elsewhere in his book, “no man ever began a Presidential effort more deeply wounded by his own nomination, suffering more insurmountable handicaps. And then it must be added that he made the worst of them.”

Might we add that those same words could now apply to Mitt Romney?

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Portions of this post are taken from my book, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds.

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3 Responses to Romney’s “47 percent” remarks haven’t destroyed his campaign. But will they keep him from winning?

  1. Ken Burk says:

    This is a truly impressive bit of writing, Bob. I appreciate insight that you bring to the presidential campaign.


  2. Pingback: Romney’s “47 percent” remarks haven’t destroyed his campaign. But will they keep him from winning? | New Media Digest

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