3Qs: Off-the-cuff comments bring candidates to “dangerous political territory”

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has drawn criticism for making controversial comments that were surreptitiously recorded at a private fundraiser in Florida in May and then published on the Internet by Mother Jones last Monday. In the video, Romney can be heard criticizing the 47 percent of Americans who, he said, pay no federal taxes, feel entitled to government programs and “who will vote for the president no matter what.” We asked Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, to examine the impact of those comments and the current state of the race to the White House between Romney and President Obama.

According to a poll released last week, 36 percent of people said Romney’s comments would decrease their likelihood of voting for the Republican challenger. What is it about Romney’s off-the-cuff statements that resonated so much with voters? How might these comments and their fallout affect the campaign?

Even before the two parties held their conventions this summer, the Democrats launched a major TV effort to shift attention away from the economy, at least as much as possible, and make Romney’s character — and his status as an “uncaring multimillionaire” — the decisive issue in the campaign. Polls indicate that they had some degree of success. Romney’s recent condescending remarks about the “47 percent of Americans” who (supposedly) pay no taxes contribute materially to the Democrats’ campaign to shape public perceptions of Romney as an uncaring, harsh rich man out of touch with those who aren’t rich. The Democrats couldn’t have done this any better than Romney himself now has.

What must candidates do to overcome unguarded statements like Romney’s or Obama’s comments at a pre-election 2008 fundraiser, in which he characterized some rural voters as those who “cling” to religion and guns? Is there a point when a campaign must accept that certain voters are no longer on the table as potential supporters?

Candidates for president — and even presidents themselves — are human beings and human beings make mistakes. With all the personal appearances, press conferences and conversations that candidates for president have over the many, many months of a campaign, inadvertent, unscripted and damaging remarks are bound to occur. Romney, however, seems to be particularly vulnerable here. For example, when he traveled to London this past summer, he seemingly and gratuitously criticized the British for their handling of the Olympics, even though he had nothing specific to criticize. Understandably, this didn’t please his hosts.

With regard to writing off certain groups of voters, candidates — especially those in close elections — try to win every vote they possibly can. But I’m sure that Obama has no real expectations of winning over Tea Partiers and that Romney has no genuine hopes of doing well with African-Americans.

With approximately six weeks to go until the election, does it appear that economic issues will continue to be the primary focus of both campaigns? What impact could the recent events in the Middle East have on the dialogue over issues between Romney and Obama?

For presidents, a bad economy — especially one with rising unemployment levels — is particularly damaging to their personal popularity. So President Obama needs to have real concern here, especially if economic news in October and early November is negative. But Romney himself has now become a significant issue in the campaign and polls in a number of swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia have begun to show gains for the president. This can surely change over the coming weeks but Republicans are certainly unhappy with current trends.


With regard to the recent violence in the Middle East, I would expect that it will have no significant effect on the Obama-Romney dialogue. First, in political campaigns, domestic concerns tend to trump foreign policy. Second, here, too, Romney seemed to speak out before all the facts were known. A challenger who becomes an issue unto himself in a campaign is occupying dangerous political territory.