The 47%: Why Romney Lost the Election Even Before the Leaked Video Footage
[quote]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.
— Mitt Romney[/quote]
And with those comments, the chattering class declared, Mitt Romney lost the election. Even Romney’s ideological allies are horrified by his remarks, calling for an intervention or jokingly (I think) suggesting he step aside and let Paul Ryan finish the campaign.
But of course, one could argue that it was actually Romney’s politically craven response to the attack on our embassy last week that lost him the election. That even before the 47% comments came to light, Romney was coming off a disappointing convention, slipping in the polls, with his advisers starting to slander one another in the press. Although still just a few points behind, history suggests that even before the revelation of the 47% comments, a Romney comeback would have been unprecedented.
So while Romney’s 47% comments certainly make him even worse off politically, they aren’t the cause of his campaign being in such dire shape. Romney’s campaign is “done” now in the same sense that it was done last week: there is nothing his campaign can do—no shift in strategy, no clever ad, not even an outstanding debate performance—to win the election. If Mitt Romney is the next president, it will be because some event outside of his control diminished the public’s confidence in President Obama.
Romney’s 47% comments do, however, help to illuminate the deeper flaws in Romney’s candidacy that have led him to this point. Putting aside how morally objectionable and politically stupid his comments were, there are two ways in which these comments are just objectively wrong, and each of these flaws in reasoning reflects a deeper flaw in Candidate Romney.
[pullquote_right]Numbers suggest that a large number of the 47% are likely Romney voters.[/pullquote_right]
First, it is laughably wrong to imply that the 47% of the country that does not pay federal income tax makes up President Obama’s base. Conservatives love to mock the hypocrisy of affluent liberals, while liberals wring their hands about poor and working class conservatives voting against their economic interests. Exit polls from 2008 show that a sizeable number of low income people voted for John McCain. Further, as several commentators have pointed out, about half of the 47% of the population that pays no federal income tax are senior citizens, the one age bracket that went for McCain and a group Romney needs heavy support from in order to have any chance of winning. These numbers suggest that a large number of the 47% are likely Romney voters, and since this is not a fixed Democratic block, it likely includes a sizeable number of voters who once supported the president but are open to persuasion. Insulting these people is not a sound political strategy.
Last week I wrote that the Republican Convention was far more anti-Obama than it was pro-Romney. Even more damaging for Romney, his convention was anti-Obama in a politically misguided way. President Obama was elected with 53% of the vote and entered office with an approval rating of around 70%. That his approval rating has fallen to as low as 38% and has steadily been below 50% shows significant disappointment in his presidency. Tapping into this disappointment has always been Romney’s best path to the White House, but the problem is that he has never managed to completely shift out of a primary campaign mode of speaking to those people who never supported President Obama in the first place (and were never going to vote for him this time). Consider the two most memorable lines of Romney and Ryan’s convention speeches: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise . . . is to help you and your family” from Romney, and “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life” from Ryan. However effective these lines are against the president, they are also insulting to anyone who supported the president, including those who may now be having second thoughts.
Romney is good at telling those who never supported President Obama, “see, you were right, there’s nothing to this guy.” But whatever anyone thinks of the substance of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, it’s undeniable that a majority of the country saw something in Obama, something they wanted to believe in. Even if many of those people now think President Obama failed to live up to his promise, presumably they still want to believe. Romney offers nothing to these people; his message is essentially, “I hope you learned your lesson, now it’s time to put the adults back in charge.” The 47% comments make that contempt for the voters and sense of entitlement about who should get to make the decisions in this country explicit.
Secondly, Romney’s caricature of nearly half the country depending on government to meet their needs is grossly inaccurate. David Brooks made this point powerfully with his typical brand of pop-sociology, and the statistics to back it up. As these charts show, few people in this country rely directly on the government to meet their needs, the majority of those who do are elderly or disabled, and much of this support comes from programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance that people must pay into in order to receive.
[pullquote_left]Even George W. Bush had a story of personal failing and redemption that made him more relatable. [/pullquote_left]
Not only is Romney’s argument wrong, but he is the absolute worst person to make it. For someone who works full-time but accepts some help in sending their kid to the doctor to be told they lack personal responsibility is insulting regardless of the source, but it’s especially galling coming from someone who’s never had to worry a day in his life about food on his table or a roof over his head. We have had plenty of presidential candidates in the modern campaign era who came from wealth and privilege, but none of them have been defined by their wealth the way Romney is. John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, John Kerry, and John McCain were all war heroes, Al Gore was a veteran, and all had lengthy careers in public service before running for president. Even George W. Bush had a story of personal failing and redemption that made him more relatable. Other than four years as governor of Massachusetts—a period he’s hesitated to highlight during his presidential run—Romney’s life has been defined largely by having and making money. On the campaign trail, he’s fed this image with frequent gaffes that highlight his wealth and make him easy to paint as out of touch. The 47% comments, however, take this image to a new level. Failing to relate to people who have struggled economically is one thing; the image that, when you’re surrounded by your fellow plutocrats and think the cameras are off, you’re outright contemptuous of those without money is something else entirely.
Romney was in bad shape before the 47% video came to light, and he’s in worse shape now. He was seen as untrustworthy and out of touch before these comments came to light, and will likely be seen as less trustworthy and more out of touch now. He may not have lost the election when the comments were revealed, but he’s now even farther from winning it.