In politics, timing is everything. And so it might be with gaffes.
Mitt Romney’s declaration that 47 percent of Americans -- all of President Obama's supporters -- want handouts from the government, secretly caught on tape during a private fundraiser earlier this year and published Monday by Mother Jones, is the latest errant remark in a presidential race replete with them. But unlike previous gaffes, the timing of this one could be more troublesome -- because there isn't time for it to fade.
Romney’s campaign has been besieged by reports of internal disputes and worrying poll numbers, and was already fighting to prove it remains on track to win in November. The perception of a dire predicament might not be fair -- surveys show Obama’s post-convention bounce fading -- but it was the reality faced by a campaign forced to deny rumors its chief strategist was on his way out.
Concerns about the Romney campaign’s ability to win are now amplified. If the campaign wanted to change the subject from its own troubles, Monday’s videotaped revelation will make the task impossible for at least a little while longer. Instead of telling people why they should vote against President Obama during the race’s home stretch, the campaign will be forced to explain why it can still win.
That’s not in itself fatal, but it’s hardly the discussion a presidential campaign wants to have in mid-September.
Beyond timing, there are other reasons why Romney’s gaffe could leave a mark:
- In an election the Romney campaign has said will be a contest between each party’s base, liberals are likely to use the GOP nominee’s comments as a rallying cry.
- It reinforces the harmful narrative for Romney, crafted by a barrage of ads critical of his career at Bain Capital, that he is indifferent to the concerns of many middle-class Americans.
- Despite his suggestion that Obama’s supporters don’t pay federal income taxes, many voters in that category – seniors and working-class men and women – disproportionately back Romney. The former governor might have insulted many of his own backers.
- Anything related to who is and isn’t paying taxes gives the Obama campaign an opening to bring up Romney’s own unreleased tax forms.
In a sign of the campaign’s own worry about the fallout, Romney responded to the controversy Monday night in a question-and-answer session arranged so quickly that TV networks were not able to carry his remarks live. Speaking in Costa Mesa, Calif., Romney said his remarks were not “elegantly stated” and were made “off the cuff” -- but declined to back down from them.
“This is the same message that I give to people, which is that we have a very different approach the president and I between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams,” he said.
Of course, both campaigns have uttered a series of damaging remarks during the race. And despite much consternation at the time, none proved decisive. Neither the suggestion from senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom that the candidate could “Etch-a-Sketch” his positions for the general election nor Obama’s comment that the private sector was “doing fine” changed the course of the election. But both also occurred a comfortable distance from Election Day.
The revelation of Romney’s comments at the fundraiser did not. And it’s another strong gust of wind for a campaign that was already teetering.