DENVER — Everybody watching this weekend’s Redskins game saw the ad featuring Mitt Romney saying it. In focus groups, pollsters only have to say “47 percent” for voters to know what they’re talking about. And lest anyone in Ohio or Florida or Virginia forget, President Obama reminds them at each of his campaign stops.
The remarks in question were, as most of the country now knows, uttered by Romney in May to wealthy donors at a private fundraiser, at which he said that 47 percent of Americans will support Obama’s reelection and are government freeloaders who pay no income taxes, see themselves as “victims” and can’t be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
In the two weeks since a surreptitious video of the remarks surfaced, they have pierced the national consciousness in a way that few blunders do. In the closing stretch of the presidential campaign, the moment has become a defining element of Romney’s candidacy.
And on Wednesday, the 47 percent issue is likely to come to the fore in an even more pronounced way, during the first presidential debate. Romney’s advisers — who acknowledge that the moment has hurt the Republican nominee among independent voters in battleground states — said he has rehearsed debate answers in which he argues that he is for “the 100 percent” and that his policy prescriptions would help the growing number of Americans under Obama’s presidency who are struggling to find work or living on food stamps.
“We wouldn’t be surprised, obviously, if that came up in the debate, and the governor’s prepared, obviously, to respond to that,” senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters Monday. “We believe the voters will see and appreciate the fact that what Governor Romney’s talking about would improve the quality of life for 100 percent of Americans.”
Ticking through a slew of economic statistics that make up the Republican indictment of Obama, Gillespie previewed Romney’s message: that he is running to help the 23 million Americans who are struggling to get jobs, the one in six who find themselves in poverty, the additional 15 million now relying on food stamps and the 50 percent of college graduates who can’t find employment.
But before Romney has a chance to say all that, his “47 percent” has already taken a toll, strategists in both parties said. The comments go to the heart of the way Obama is trying to define the race: not as a referendum on his stewardship of the economy, but as a choice between a president who fights for the middle class and a candidate who fights for the few.
“The Obama guys are pouring the coals on this on TV and driving it,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said. “You inform with reason, and you persuade with emotion. They’ve made the rational case that Romney’s policies would hurt the middle class, and this is the emotional counterpart.”
Castellanos, who advised Romney’s 2008 campaign but is not affiliated with his current one, said there is reason for the Republican’s team to be alarmed. “The only thing in politics that is worse than voters deciding that they don’t like you is when voters decide you don’t like them,” he said.
The Obama campaign has widely circulated a television ad that shows images of factory workers, veterans and families against audio of Romney’s 47 percent comments. The spot has a significant footprint, airing across each battleground state in nearly every local television market where the Obama campaign is doing any advertising. It is being shown not only during newscasts but also during such mainstream network programming as NFL games and “Saturday Night Live,” according to CMAG Kantar Media.
Romney’s comments about the 47 percent are weighing him down with voters, according to recent polls. Almost six in 10 voters nationally say that as president, he would do more to favor the wealthy than the middle class, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday. Specifically regarding the remarks, respondents to a Post-ABC poll from last week were displeased with Romney’s viewpoint: Fifty-four percent had an unfavorable impression of his comments, compared with 32 percent who had a favorable view.
Helped by Obama’s advertising effort, Romney’s 47 percent comments have had a shelf life beyond the damaging remarks he made earlier in the campaign, such as how he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me,” or that he knows what it’s like to worry about getting a “pink slip,” or the $10,000 bet he once wagered during a debate.
This is in part because his remarks in the fundraiser video could not be dismissed as a gaffe. Longtime Democratic strategist Robert Shrum said many voters who recognize how awkward Romney can be at his rallies may have seen how fluent and comfortable he was at that fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., and concluded, “Wow, that really is the real Romney.”
“We could have a big debate about deficit reduction, and it doesn’t reach most people except for the headline. This is the kind of thing where the morning after, the week after, people get a cup of coffee, and they mention it to each other. It catches the popular imagination. And if Romney loses, it will become a benchmark and a hallmark of the campaign,” said Shrum, a top strategist on Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s presidential bids.
Romney’s brain trust understands this. Publicly, his advisers have said that the comments help crystallize a contrast in the two candidates’ governing philosophies: between what Romney sees as a society based on government dependence and one based on free enterprise.
Campaigning last week in Ohio, Romney repeatedly said that he was running to help all Americans — language that advisers said he is likely to reprise in the debate. “I think the president cares about the people of America; I care about all the people in America,” Romney said. “But I know how to help the people of America and make sure our future’s bright and prosperous for our kids and protect liberty, and he does not. I know what it takes.”
Privately, another Romney adviser said that there is “no question it’s had an impact.”
“I don’t think there’s any question it’s cut, and it’s best left alone. Trying to explain it is not helpful. The issue is how long does it hurt, and there is some minuscule but nonetheless hopeful sense that some is beginning to ebb,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
The adviser added, optimistically, that voters could give Romney the benefit of the doubt in the debate. “That’s the only time he has to adequately explain it, and people might actually pay attention to his answer,” the adviser said.