Sunday, December 11, 2011

Will Romney's Gaffe Hurt Him? Don't Bet On It

Maybe Mitt Romney just got a little too excited after his home state recently approved casino gambling. In last night's GOP presidential debate, the erstwhile frontrunner took on Rick Perry by betting him $10,000 that Perry was misrepresenting the content of Romney's book. Immediately after the debate, Romney began taking heavy flak for the curious and seemingly elitist remark.

Obviously, Romney would have less of a debate hangover this morning if he had bet Perry a more modest sum. (Perhaps it would go from Vegas-sized to Salt Lake City–sized.) Despite other noteworthy moments from the debate, pundits and blogs this morning are using the $10,000 to hammer home a familiar theme: Mitt Romney is rich and out of touch with the average American. Indeed, the deeper they dig, the harder it hits. First it's "Mitt Romney is rich"; then it's pointed out that Romney was nonchalant about a sum of money that many Americans take months to earn. Then the math brings the issue into stark relief: by betting $10,000, Romney was gambling 0.005% of his $200 million net worth. If the median family were to bet 0.005% of their net worth, it would be a simple $5 bet. As a result, Romney truly might not have realized how pricey his bet was—after all, we don't think twice about betting $5 on the Super Bowl.

(However, one possible defense for the Romney campaign would be to argue that he intended to wager an exorbitant sum—because of how sure he was that Perry was wrong. We also don't think twice about saying, "I'll bet you a million bucks," to emphasize that there is no doubt in our minds that we are correct. Still, if this is what Romney meant, he probably should have bet Perry the full $1 million. And even if he was exaggerating to make a point, the fact that it was universally taken as a sign of his affluence proves that it was not the best way to draw attention to his point.)

So, yes, Mitt Romney is rich. But we knew that before the debate, too—and that's why, despite all the attention from the punditry, this gaffe is unlikely to put a significant dent in Romney's numbers. More so than any other candidate this year, or even this decade, Mitt Romney is a known commodity. Since 2007, when he left office as Massachusetts governor, he has been running for president almost nonstop—that's four years of media attention as one of the GOP's major national figures. His name recognition is high, and his positives and negatives are well established, unlike the many fluid candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Perry) that we've seen this cycle. As a result, Romney's poll numbers have famously (and frustratingly, for his campaign) held steady at around 25% all year.

Those 25% of voters know by now that Romney is rolling in it. They're still in his corner, though—probably because the reason for their support is something else well known about their candidate (his private-sector success or high electability, for instance). It's definitely not because Romney "most understands the needs and problems of people like" them—a statement only 13% (at most half of Romney voters) of Iowa Republicans agreed with in a recent poll. A cynic might say that this is the portion of the Republican Party composed of realists who have settled for a nominee they know is not perfect, but is—in their mind—still the party's best bet.

Romney's problem, of course, is the 75% of GOPers who seem to refuse to vote for him. The flip side of the same logic applies to them: these are the people who are aware of Romney's positives and negatives and have decided the negatives win out. But Romney had this problem long before last night, so "Bet-gate" can't explain it. Nor is the $10,000 offer likely to make things worse among this segment of voters; Romney's wealth is hardly their only misgiving about him, and conservatives are relatively unconcerned with the issue that the outsized bet speaks to. One national poll found that income inequality is considered a major problem by 59% of moderates, 68% of Democrats, and 83% of liberals—but only 48% of Republicans and 32% of conservatives. If there is one segment of the American public that this debate gaffe won't matter to, it is conservative primary voters. Flip-flopping, on the other hand, remains probably Romney's greatest weakness; if he misses out on the nomination, that's a far likelier culprit than his swelling bank account.

Now, this doesn't mean that the bet can't hurt Romney; well-executed spin can always be dangerous for a campaign. One thing to look for is whether one of Romney's opponents makes a play for that slice of voters that were grievously offended by the $10,000 bet. (I never said they didn't exist, just that they weren't a significant number.) The intended recipient of the bet, Rick Perry, has already tried to align himself with that bloc, saying that he found the bet as "out of touch" as everyone else did. If Perry or another candidate can really latch onto the everyman theme, it may make a difference in such a splintered primary field; even if Romney doesn't lose support in the aftermath of his gaffe, another candidate could gain as a result of exploiting it and knock Romney down one peg on the list of Iowa medal-winners.

Finally, never discount the role of the media in these campaigns. Rick Perry and Herman Cain didn't lose support immediately after their first few debate stumbles or sexual-harassment allegations, but rather their support eroded as the media continued to hammer away at them for it. If the media keeps the memory of Romney's bet alive, he's more likely to suffer from it. Only time will tell if this will be the case. In the meantime, it all adds up to the same conclusion: if you're looking to place money on this primary campaign, it's still safest to hedge your bets.

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