Yesterday, the National Journal’s Ron Fournier got into a spirited panel discussion in which he said Mitt Romney’s welfare ad “touches a racial button.” This got some attention, and Fournier is back with another piece today that’s generating more chatter, in which he explains why he believes the Romney ads constitute playing the “race card.”
One key part of Fournier’s piece is his reporting on private discussions with GOP strategists about the real game plan here:
First, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama. Second, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats. This information comes from senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
Furthermore, a senior GOP pollster said he has shared with the Romney camp surveys showing that white working-class voters who backed Obama in 2008 have moved to Romney in recent weeks “almost certainly because of the welfare ad. We’re talking a (percentage) point or two, but that could be significant.”
Fournier says GOP strategists who have either worked for or shared information with the Romney campaign have candidly told him that the welfare attacks are about angering blue collar whites and turning them on Obama. And it’s bearing fruit, as evidenced by movement among these voters in Romney’s direction.
In one sense, this won’t surprise anyone who has paid close attention to Romney’s broader strategy here.
As I’ve been saying, Romney’s welfare strategy is all about reviving an old-school politics that’s designed to redirect middle-class and lower-middle-class resentment downwards. The main Romney ad on the topic actually shows a worker wiping the sweat off his brow while a narrator tells you that Clinton (the “good” Democrat who did away with handouts to the undeserving) required work for welfare, while Obama (the “bad” kind of Democrat who wants to take away what’s rightfully yours and redistribute it to others) wants to send people “welfare checks” for not working.
This strategy confirms that Romney has decided he can’t win on his supposed economic prowess alone and needs to inject resentment-based themes into the race. As Tom Edsall notes, the attack on Obama for supposedly gutting Medicare is of a piece with the welfare argument and suggests a broad strategic shift.
Is Romney’s strategy race-based? Romney would be targeting these voters anyway, since he’s adopted a strategy that may require him to capture a record share of the white vote to win. What needs to be pointed out is the arbitrary nature of using welfare to target those voters. Where did that come from? Romney’s original theory was that he could win by painting Obama as a nice guy who is in over his head on the economy. The welfare waiver came in response to a request from GOP governors, and objections to it first resided deep in the land of conservative think tanks. Romney rolled out this strategy — and the Medicare one — only after polls seemed to be showing Obama with a small but persistent lead despite months of Romney attacks over the economy.
At any rate, Fournier has confirmed from GOP strategists that angering blue collar whites is the goal of this strategy. We also know that the GOP has a history of using race-based messaging to appeal to this constituency. And we know Romney probably can’t win unless he pushes his white vote totals to record levels — hence the pollster’s claim that these attacks could make a difference on the margins.
What makes this all noteworthy is who Fournier is. He’s well respected in Washington journalism, having worked as the Associated Press’s Washington correspondent — where he was called on first in many presidential press conferences — before becoming editor in chief of the National Journal Group. Having him come out and explicitly charge the Romney campaign with race-baiting will make this a safer topic among some of the top-shelf commentator and journalist types who might otherwise have shied away from it.