Romney's Remarks Won't Have Lasting Impact on the Election
The media has a tendency to overstate the importance of gaffes like the Mitt Romney video leak
September 18, 2012
With the release of a tape showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney making a "not elegantly stated" remark about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes came the inevitable flutter of pundits trying to explain what the impact on the race would be. On one end of the spectrum was Bloomberg View's Josh Barro, who penned a column arguing the leak was the final nail in the Romney campaign's coffin. On the other was the New York Times' Nate Silver, who pointed out via Twitter that "90 percent of 'game-changing' gaffes are less important in retrospect than they seem in the moment."
There is reason to come down closer to Silver's take than Barro's. Evidence points toward slips of the tongue mattering less in terms of electoral outcomes than the press generally makes out. Among the most egregious gaffes in the 2008 race was then-candidate Barack Obama's statement—also made at a closed-door fundraiser—that small-town Americans are bitter and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." Although it sparked a firestorm of criticism at the time, Obama went on to clinch the nomination eight weeks later and win the presidency that November.
More recently, this spring, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich thought they were on the receiving end of a political windfall when a Romney adviser said the transition from the primary to general campaign is "almost like an Etch A Sketch—you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." Romney's opponents spent the day gleefully brandishing the toy as a prop, hoping to persuade voters that Romney is capricious in his values and convictions. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank called it a "debilitating gaffe." Yet, looking back, the blunder barely registered as a blip on Romney's path to become the nominee.
From a statistical perspective, this year's general election appears to be no different. As John Sides at The Monkey Cage blog illustrated graphically yesterday, neither Obama's declaration that "the private sector is doing fine" nor his "you didn't build that" moment led to meaningful changes in his Pollster.com average. Romney's statement on the attacks in Libya last week, berated by the chattering class, actually came at the front end of a slide in the polls for Obama.
Clearly, the temptation to overstate the importance of electoral process is strong. As thoughtful election watchers, however, we do well to resist it.