President Obama and Mitt Romney each have already stumbled in ways that can derail even the most sophisticated, well-funded campaigns. But which candidate has hurt himself more?
For a while, self-inflicted errors were strictly Romney’s problem. The presumptive GOP nominee’s chain of verbal mistakes –- each of which reminded voters that he has more money than they do -- gave Obama a useful rhetorical cudgel. And then came Obama’s startling comment that “the private sector is doing fine.”
The one-off remark doesn’t match Romney’s rhetorical missteps in number. But it came a week after a tepid jobs report amid a still dour economy, and by itself may have catapulted Obama into a tie with Romney in a battle of the gaffes.
Both candidates are now well-armed to go on the attack but simultaneously vulnerable to return fire. The parity in part stems from the similar type of problem the misstatements present for both Romney and Obama: They reinforce preexisting – and damaging -- public perceptions.
That is what happened in 2004 when Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, relentlessly attacked by Republicans as a flip-flopper, said of a war funding bill that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
It was also the case in 2008 when Republican presidential nominee John McCain insisted that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” the day Lehman Brothers collapsed –- a remark the Obama campaign jumped on gleefully. The comment might not have been so problematic if McCain hadn’t already said he didn’t know as much about the economy as he should, and if he hadn’t gone on to mishandle the Wall Street crisis.
The multimillionaire Romney, son of a wealthy business magnate and former Michigan governor, has struggled to convince middle-class voters that he understands their financial problems. He didn’t help his cause when he talked in the primaries about his wife’s two Cadillacs and his friends who own NASCAR and football teams, when he said he “likes to fire people” who don’t provide satisfactory service, and when he equated corporations with people.
It’s one possible explanation for why polls show the public is divided on Romney personally while still generally warm toward Obama. “People get the impression this is a man who can’t possibly understand what they go through,” said Michael Bocian, a Democratic pollster.
Romney’s rivals are already taking advantage. The super PAC supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, and the public-sector Service Employees International Union unveiled an array of state-specific, Spanish-language ads on Monday that highlight the Republican’s multitude of ostensibly insensitive remarks. The real problem for the presumptive GOP nominee, Bocian said, is if the Obama campaign can connect the statements to a larger narrative of Romney actively embracing an agenda, like cutting taxes for oil companies or the rich, that helps the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. “I think that connection will be the key for Obama,” he said.
Obama, meanwhile, looked similarly out of touch last week. But the disconnect wasn’t with lower-income citizens, it was with his management of the economy as a whole -- already a vulnerability for an incumbent whose tenure has been marked by high unemployment. A Quinnipiac University poll of Pennsylvania, a swing state that leans Democratic, found 49 percent of voters thought Romney would do a better job with the economy, compared to only 41 percent for Obama. The Romney campaign, for its part, has mentioned Obama’s private-sector gaffe unceasingly since Friday during conference calls, rallies, and media appearances.
“I think [Romney] is probably pretty happy the other guy is making the mistake right now, and it’s big one,” said Chip Felkel, a GOP consultant based in South Carolina. “Their argument all along was Obama doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand.”
He added, “I think they’re going to be able to exploit the hell out of it.”
Some members of both parties dispute the notion that the two men’s gaffes are equally damaging. Democrats contend Obama, usually a model of rhetorical discipline, has made only one mistake, compared to Romney’s litany. More to the point, they argue, the former governor is more likely to say something he’ll regret when voters are tuned into the election.
“One comment on a Friday afternoon that might have been off tone is not going to decide this election,” said longtime Democratic operative Steve Elmendorf. “Now, if you make a gaffe in one of the debates in October, that’s a lot different than what we’re talking about right now.”
Republicans counter that the number doesn’t matter, only the damage incurred. And because of the extra scrutiny any incumbent president faces, they say, Obama’s wound presents many more problems. “Anytime you have a sitting president, it is a referendum on him,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “When he says everything is fine at 8.2 percent unemployment, you have to wonder what he’s been reading.”
If there is bipartisan consensus on this topic, it is in expressing caution toward reading too much into the potential fallout from gaffes by either candidate. And, certainly, the level of unemployment will wield far greater influence on Romney’s and Obama’s fates. “I’m a little more measured about it all,” Cullen said. “We have so many months to go. It seems unlikely the election will come down to one quote.”
Maybe not. But if it does, voters will have plenty of choices.