The Washington Post

Romney’s ’47 percent’ comment and the importance of the echo chamber

Mitt Romney's comment suggesting that the 47 percent of Americans who support President Obama are dependent upon government has consumed the political media over the past couple days.

Among the people who matter, though (hint: actual voters), the response has been more of a collective shoulder shrug.

A new Gallup poll shows that 36 percent of registered voters say the comment makes them less likely to support Romney, while 20 percent say it makes them more likely to back him. Forty-three percent, meanwhile, say it makes no difference.

But even that 36 percent number is a little misleading. The number is driven up considerably by the more than two-thirds of Democrats (almost all who weren't going to vote for Romney anyway) who say it makes them less likely to support him.

Among independents — the group Romney needs to be concerned with turning off — 29 percent say the comment makes them less likely to back him, compared to 15 percent who say it makes them more likely.

Meanwhile, more than half of independents — and this is the kicker — say the flap makes no difference to their vote.

Now, to be clear, this is still not good for Romney. Whenever you're turning off more potential voters than you're turning on (so to speak), that doesn't help.

But at least at this early stage, the comment doesn't seem to be pushing scads of voters from Romney's camp. And just 4 percent of Republicans say the comment makes them less likely to support Romney, so he isn't losing his base over this either.

In fact, the instant reaction to Romney's "47 percent" comment tracks pretty closely with Gallup's first look at reaction to another big news story: President Obama's decision to support gay marriage this year. Back then, 63 percent of independents said it made no difference to them. Among those who said it did effect their vote, though, twice as many (23 percent ) said it made them less likely to back Obama as said it made them more likely (11 percent) to support him. And even 10 percent of the Democratic base said it made them less likely to back Obama.

So in both cases, independents mostly didn't care, but those who did care said, by about a two-to-one margin, that it turned them off.

But while Obama's embrace of gay marriage is generally thought to be a pretty neutral factor in the 2012 race, Romney's "47 percent" comment is supposed by some to be a dagger to his reelection hopes.

So what's the difference between the two?

The echo chamber.

Gay marriage was an interesting story, but it wasn't as juicy or shocking, and neither side is really pushing it hard as a political issue. Thus, it has basically disappeared from political coverage.

Romney's comment, meanwhile, is kibble for the political news media. A hidden camera video (!) released at the tail=end of what has been a very tough stretch for Romney (!!), in which the candidate offers the kind of blunt assessment of his political foes that you rarely see these days (!!!). How could you not write about it?

The comment has also been the subject of numerous campaign ads and looks to be fodder for Democratic messaging in the news media and debates in the days and weeks to come. None of the same could be said about the gay marriage issue.

As with gay marriage, though, it's not clear at the outset that the "47 percent" issue is a game-changer. And that's probably because many people quite simply aren't paying attention.

But the political echo chamber means people who haven't digested the comment will — at least to some extent. Democrats believe this is all to their benefit, while Republicans are happy to try and turn the situation into a debate over the role of government, which they often win.

From there, it's all about who wins the communications wars.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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