Jake: Tyler, I’m going to go ahead and assume you don’t agree with Mitt Romney’s comments that 47% of Americans will support Barack Obama because they want free stuff from the government. I’m going to assume that you know that most people who do not pay federal income taxes still contribute payroll or other federal taxes, and that many of those who don’t are retirees, students, or active duty military. And I’m going to assume that you know that the others, the least advantaged among us, do not pay federal income taxes because of a succession of Republican-led policies, from the Earned Income Tax Credit to the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.
So given those assumptions, what is your take on the content of Mitt Romney’s comments? Have we gotten a substantive glimpse of his worldview, or is this just an example of the campaign-season triviality for which you spare no disdain? Finally, what, if any, impact will this have on the final 49 days of the campaign?
Tyler: First, this, which you originally showed me.
“Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney. Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign.”
“Now, granted, many of the non-filers in red states vote Democratic. As Columbia’s Andrew Gelman and others have shown
, those making less are likelier to vote Democratic regardless of whether they live in a red or blue state. But in terms of the electoral college, many of the states Romney is taking for granted, and some of the states he’s working hardest to win, have the highest populations of “takers” he derided as part of the Democrats’ base.”
I actually think Romney’s strategy is captured in that quote. The GOP has gotten progressively (pun intended) more anti-government recently AND has remained strong in red “taker” states. I think Romney’s strategy is to go after richer states. Plus, as the analyses above show, people actually do pay taxes. Perhaps hearing that 47% of people are takers will make what is actually almost everyone say, “I’m not supporting those damn moochers. I’m voting for Romney.” Very few people will actually think Mitt is talking about them; this s especially true when you look at the working age population.
I think this is a bad strategy, though. Not only doesn’t it make Mitt sound out of touch and unsympathetic, it also doesn’t really help him that much if he’s trying to go after payer states. According to Matthews’ analysis, there are 17 toss-up electoral votes from payer states and 29 from takers (including Florida). Even if he’s relying on people feeling like payers no matter what and the retiree crowd staying in his column, he is still risking more than his reward would likely be (his best chance for a reward is Virginia). He has now opened the door for attack ads in every middle class swing state. Plus, it’s just SO irksome. I don’t think these are his actual sentiments, but, as usual with Romney, I think they’re his political sentiments.
So where do you think Mitt falls? What’s the source of this strategy?
Jake: Here’s the thing. Mitt IS talking about me. I’m a graduate student, so I didn’t pay any income taxes last year. I also support Barack Obama. According to his formula, that makes me one of those folks 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.” This wasn’t just a misstatement. Unlike, say, the “you didn’t build that” quote, Romney’s point is indisputably clear, and I disagree that voters won’t feel singled out by it.
I think Mitt gets hurt on two levels. First, this has become a valence election, in which the candidates are being judged on competence
rather than policy. Game theoretic models usually suggest that happens when the two candidates offer similar platforms. While there is a gulf between the policy agendas of the candidates this year, neither has gotten specific on the stump. (Side note: Obama has presented
detailed plans on deficit reduction, tax reform, infrastructure
investment, energy, immigration, and so on, but he has not highlighted
them during the campaign.) That ambiguity increases the importance of valence, or how much voters trust each candidate to fulfill the duties of the office. It’s possible that Romney won’t lose much support over the content of his comments, but he undoubtedly looks less competent in their aftermath. Romney used to be sold as the disciplined, polished CEO who could bring his business skills to the White House. After a Griswold-esque foreign trip, an amateurish convention, his offensive shoot-from-the-hip Libya statements, and now this, Romney is getting killed on the valence scales. He better start rolling out some darn good policy — and soon!
Second, even if he puts out the fire, every day spent scrambling the
damage-control hoses is a day closer to Barack Obama’s second term.
Obama held a consistent two-point lead in the national polls prior to
the RNC, and he has expanded that up to five points due to his
post-DNC (i.e. post-Clinton speech) bounce. More troubling for Romney
is that Obama consistently carries 48-50% in those polls — comprised,
one would assume, mostly of welfare queens. That means Romney has to
a) peel away the 2-3% of persuadable voters who declared Obama in the
past week and/or b) win nearly all of the remaining undecideds. Both
are extremely unlikely at this point, as the new book The Timeline of
Presidential Elections tells us, and they are impossible unless he
regains the offensive. And I don’t mean “offensive” in the sense of
insulting over 150 million Americans.
But you asked about the strategy, and, well, I don’t think there is
one, at least not behind these comments. For the first time in
history, we might have actually heard Mitt Romney say something
sincere. I mean, here’s a subject that he’s an expert in. Entitlement?
Mitt Romney pulled himself up by his father’s bootstraps, to
Cranbrook, to Harvard, to Bain Capital, to the governor’s mansion.
Victimization? Nobody decries the wrath of the “liberal media” more.
His campaign’s response to flagging poll numbers has been accusations
of deliberate bias on the part of the pollsters to oversample
Democrats. Dependency? He negotiated a $10 million FDIC bailout to
keep Bain afloat in 1990. And as for not paying income taxes? Only
0.82% of his earnings last year were subject to federal income taxes.
So when Mitt Romney talks about these issues, I’m willing to take him
at his word.
What do you think about the general state of the campaign? And can you help me flesh out the Romney makers vs. takers strategy? I thought he was running because people wanted jobs, and he knew how to create them. Now it seems like he’s saying that people (47% of us) don’t want to work, and now he’s going to force them to.
Tyler: I think Mitt is talking about you as well. When I refer to “working age,” I am basically excluding students. My point is that students and other non-tax filers are a very small percentage of the population in reality,so offending them doesn’t have a big impact.
To your comments on valence and your questions about strategy I refer you to this poll and this Politico article. I think Mitt is running an electoral math based campaign out of necessity. In 2008 Obama was able to successfully run a broad unifying campaign, but Romney has a different set of circumstances. I think his new strategy will be to work on swing state swing voters however possible. The 47% comment may work in Virginia and New Hampshire (maybe North Carolina to some extent). I think this strategy will ultimately fail because comments and planks intended for one state or demographic will offset in other places and with other groups. It also creates a sense of incompetency, to your point.
So here’s my question for you, from a political (i.e. not policy or ideology) standpoint, what would you recommend Romney do in this final ~6-7 weeks?
Jake: At this point in the campaign, the electoral dynamics have been set.
Changing them with only six weeks left would be unprecedented. Still,
he’s got to try.
Based on the standard electoral game theory model I mentioned earlier,
in which voters judge candidates along two axes, valence and policy,
Romney should introduce a series of detailed policy proposals targeted
at the median voter. That would be the only way to counteract his
valence deficit. The problem is that Obama already holds the middle
ground on most issues, and decreasing the distance between their
positions would theoretically increase the effect of Obama’s valence advantage. It
would also alienate Romney’s right-wing base and further sap voters’
confidence that he could hold a consistent position on anything.
Frankly, he missed several opportunities to move to the center, first
after the primaries, then with the VP choice. That window is long gone.
He still has the debates, of course. They give Romney an opportunity to
restore the veneer of competence that he has savaged over the past few
weeks. Just standing on the stage with the sitting president will make him look, for lack of a better word, “presidential.” He obviously thinks this is his best opportunity, because he has stayed off the stump recently in order to prep. I expect him to be aggressive, in part
because he is the underdog and in part because the best defense is a
good offense. When challenged, Romney gets squirmy and makes mistakes
(“I’ll bet you $10,000!”) Obama handles the pressure much better, but
Romney must pummel him on the economy if he has any chance.
Unfortunately for Romney, history tells us that debates never change the outcome of
elections. Even if he wins all three decisively (unlikely as that may
be,) he’d probably just end up in the same boat as John Kerry.
But perhaps we’re discounting what’s happening on the ground, where elections are really fought. Campaigns recall that cliched iceberg metaphor. The vast majority of their work is taking place out of sight of the national
horserace media. I wouldn’t say Romney’s running a swing state strategy,
but rather a swing ZIP code strategy. Romney has employed pretty
sophisticated microtargeting efforts to tailor appeals to voters in
critical subregions. Those voters are subject to specific direct mail
pieces, internet ads, and small-market TV spots. And Romney’s field
operation, while small, has an active presence in many of these areas.
He’ll have plenty of money to continue to target these voters, and
maybe they can help him overperform in swing states. The problem is
that those appeals only work on the margins. He has to close the gap
in the top-line polls for them to prove decisive, and right now he’s losing in every swing state that Obama carried in 2008 (save your home state of North Carolina.) Without expanding the map in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, Romney must draw an inside straight to win. And right now he’s holding a 7-2 offsuit.
My point here is that none of these options has a high chance of success. His last, best
hope is that the economy goes into freefall. Maybe he can organize his
plutocratic friends to do a mass walkout, “Atlas Shrugged”-style. Then
all the moochers will realize how much they need the makers, thus
ensuring a Romney victory and saving the country from Obama’s
Whaddya think about that strategy?
Tyler: As long as I get invited to Galt’s Gulch.
I think you are right to say Mitt missed his opportunity to control
his own destiny. I have been hoping, perhaps in vain, for a
Republican candidate to fight for the middle ground of the policy
spectrum. It just isn’t a part of the party’s mainstream at the
moment, which is unfortunate for everyone.
Jake: Let me go ahead and say it then: Craft 2016!
Tyler: Actually 2024 is my first year of eligibility… Not that I’ve memorized that.
Jake: Just hide your birth certificate. Nobody will ever ask for it.