Why Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment was so bad

March 4, 2013

In an interview with Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace, Mitt Romney acknowledged just how much his "47 percent" comments -- in which he all but wrote off the votes of half the country -- had negatively impacted his chances of being president: "That hurt. There's no question that hurt and did real damage to my campaign."

Romney's admission of the damage done got us to thinking (again) about why exactly the remark hurt him so badly.

The conventional wisdom is that "47 percent" hurt so much because it played directly into the stereotype of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy that President Obama and his campaign were playing up. And, that's true.

But, there's more there when it comes to why the comments were so incredibly damaging. The truly terrible thing for Romney was that the remarks not only came directly out of Romney's mouth but were also documented on video.

In an age in which average people assume all political ads are mostly (or totally) false, there are very few things that cut through the clutter. A candidate saying something as controversial as 47 percent of the country is dependent on the government is the sort of thing that makes even almost anyone turn and look at the TV.  And that's the whole ballgame for a political campaign.

Imagine for a second if Romney's "47 percent" comments had never been captured on video and rather only been quoted by someone in attendance. Yes, it still would have been a story that Romney would have had to address but it's hard to imagine that it would have been the definitive moment of the campaign -- as it turned out to be.

This isn't the first time that a politician has been brought low by video of him (or her) speaking impolitically. The first time we can remember it happening was in the 2004 Senate race between then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D) and then-Rep. John Thune in which the Republican's campaign ran a commercial featuring Daschle saying things like "I'm a D.C. resident."

In 2010, Rep. Bobby Etheridge (D-N.C.) was brought low by a confrontation on a street in D.C. that was caught on camera and became a national story.

The power of these "candid candidate" moments is that they present a jarringly different image of a politician than the one he or she is presenting to the public and raise questions among voters about who the real Mitt Romney or Tom Daschle or Bob Etheridge actually is.

The prevalence of videos cameras on the campaign trail coupled with the ease of posting clips to You Tube and other video-sharing sites means that these sort of moments will grow, not shrink, in coming campaigns. Candidates need to adjust accordingly or face the prospect of adding their names to a list that Romney headlines at the moment.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site.
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Chris Cillizza | March 4, 2013