Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's remarks at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser on May 17, soon after he clinched the GOP nod, have come back to haunt him about seven weeks before Election Day.
During the secretly taped event, first reported by Mother Jones magazine, Romney dismisses the "47 percent" of Americans who do not pay income taxes—a figure that is roughly accurate, but includes seniors on fixed incomes and military service members serving in conflicts—as government freeloaders who will never take responsibility for themselves and never vote for him.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney said, in the dimly lit video. "All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. …These are people who pay no income tax."
He added, "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The dinner took place at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of private equity manager Marc Leder, according to Mother Jones.
Romney also joked that he'd have an easier time winning the election if his father, who was born in Mexico to white U.S. citizens, had been born to Mexican parents.
"Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this," Romney said to laughter. "I mean, I say that jokingly. But it would be helpful to be Latino."
Still other sections of the video show Romney talking about what messaging has been most effective in focus groups, revealing that people don't respond well to blatant criticism of President Barack Obama, because many of them voted for him in 2008, but do like the phrasing that he's "in over his head."
"Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task," Romney said.
More clips show him discussing foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East, and his wife's role on the campaign trail.
"It's shocking that a candidate for president of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as 'victims,' entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take 'personal responsibility' for their lives," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said in a statement. "It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
Obama experienced a similar revealing moment during the Democratic primary four years ago, when he claimed rural voters had nothing to do but "cling to their guns or religion."
After the Romney campaign released a statement by communications director Gail Gitcho that said the candidate wanted to "help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy," Romney himself held a hastily put together brief press conference to address the video.
"It's not elegantly stated, let me put it that way, I was speaking off the cuff in response to a question and I am sure I could state it more clearly and in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that," Romney said, declining to distance himself from any of his recorded words. "I would hope the person who has the video would put out the full material. But it's message which I'm going to carry and continue to carry, which is look, the president's approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes because my discussion about lowering taxes isn't as attractive to them."
Romney said the tone was different at the fundraiser than it was on the trail because the donors had asked him "process" questions about how he would win the race and he finds policy discussions more suited to campaign rally audiences.
At first blush, Romney's recorded words may not seem all that different than his campaign trail fodder. But rarely is he so frank on the stump, or willing to shun such a wide swath of potential voters; instead, Romney works on the trail to make his economic message attractive to all voters.
And what is really striking is that throughout the campaign season, Republicans have accused Obama of creating "class warfare" by arguing that the wealthiest Americans should pay more taxes. This Romney and others have said is language that divides the American public and is unhealthy. It's hard to buy that argument given Romney's fundraising remarks. Further, many of the working poor and seniors who may not pay income tax are, in fact, reliable Republican voters, rendering Romney's supposition false.
Also a huge liability for Romney is that he has refused to reveal more than two years' worth of his own tax returns, fueling speculation that he has something to hide. Those that he has shared have shown he pays an effective tax rate of about 14 percent, roughly half of what wage-earners of his means pay. That's because he's taken advantage of loopholes created to encourage investment, paying a reduced rate on his capital gains, as well as setting up myriad off-shore accounts in tax shelters such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
The Obama campaign will be sure to slice and dice Romney's videotaped words into brutalizing campaign commercials and they won't help but feed into his already existent "rich guy who doesn't care about the little people" stereotype.
With a campaign already reeling from a weak convention and infighting, this latest stumble is the last thing Romney needed to right his ship heading into the final stretch of the election. If there is a silver lining, it's that his Republican base will surely be fired up by his frank talk. But it may just be that those blunt words offend the very sliver of undecided voters that Romney opined to his intimate dinner companions would decide the election.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.