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How dangerous are off-​​the-​​cuff comments?

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.

– by Matt Collette

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