A uniquely self-destructive candidate

Have we ever seen a candidate’s prime vulnerability so dramatically reinforced this close to Election Day?

Published September 18, 2012 12:19PM (EDT)

There really is no true parallel in modern presidential politics for the self-inflicted damage that Mitt Romney is now enduring. Sure, major party nominees make glaringly public mistakes and are hindered by embarrassing revelations in every national election. But I’m straining to think of another example of something as toxic as Romney’s secretly recorded comments to Republican donors emerging out of the blue at such a late and pivotal moment in White House race.

The supposed parallel that’s getting the most play right now is Barack Obama’s remarks at a private fundraiser in 2008 about economically frustrated working-class white voters in the Midwest clinging to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.”

Certainly, those words reeked of condescension, but from the standpoint of raw politics there are some key differences. For one, Obama’s comment came much earlier in the campaign – in April ’08, seven months before the general election and after he’d pulled well ahead of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic delegate race. Obama’s foes have continuously recycled the story ever since, but by Election Day it had largely lost its bite. By contrast, the tape of Romney dismissing Obama voters as a class of dependents “who believe that they are victims” is surfacing at a supremely sensitive time for him – seven weeks before the election and during a brutal stretch in which his poll standing has slumped and his own party has begun loudly second-guessing him.

The other difference, as Jonathan Chait explained last night, is substantive. As problematic as they were, Obama’s ’08 comments were an effort to explain why he was determined to reach out to white working-class voters and how he planned to do so. But in his remarks, Romney simply wrote off nearly half the country, saying that “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The bigger problem for Romney, of course, is that the tape plays to the exact image that his opponents – Republican and Democratic – have been pushing all year.

Recall that in the GOP primaries, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry both fomented resentment of Romney’s “vulture capitalist” background against working-class Republican voters. It didn’t stop Romney from capturing the nomination, but it did slow him, and help cement a pattern in which Romney’s primary season support seemed directly related to the income levels of GOP voters. Democrats picked right up where Perry and Gingrich left off, and it probably helps explain why Romney has such an image problem. Consider this story that Reuters ran last week about lower-income conservative white voters in Virginia and North Carolina:

Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.

So in this year's presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.

"Romney's going to help the upper class," said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. "He doesn't know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house."

She'll vote for Obama, she said: "At least he wasn't brought up filthy rich."

Have we ever seen a candidate’s prime vulnerability so dramatically reinforced this close to Election Day?

I suppose the revelation on the Friday before the 2000 vote that George W. Bush had been arrested for DUI 24 years earlier might count. It fed the notion that he was – or had been – an unserious man, although exit polls suggested it ultimately had no impact (but the race was so close, who knows?). Or maybe the indictment of Caspar Weinberger that Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh won on the Friday before the 1992 election, which returned questions about George H.W. Bush’s role in the scandal to the headlines just as Bush was scrambling to close a stubborn gap against Bill Clinton? Or Ronald Reagan’s shaky first debate performance in 1984, which exacerbated fears about his age and mental faculties, until Reagan masterfully defused them in the next debate? Or perhaps Gerald Ford’s 1976 debate claim that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” which fed the caricature of Ford as a guy who (in the words of LBJ) had “played one too many games without a helmet.”

We won’t know for a few days – at least – what kind of impact this story will have on Romney’s poll numbers. As John Sides points out, eruptions of controversy haven’t really moved the needle much this year, nor did they in 2008, so for all of the grief Romney is now taking, we may still be staring at a 3-point race next week. Of course, the other way of looking at this is through the opportunity cost to Romney. Even if he doesn’t end up losing much ground in the horse race, will the damage to image caused by this story and the overall distraction that it represents prevent him from making the inroads required to close the gap with Obama and take the lead?

This is why on “The Last Word” last night I suggested that the best parallel for the Romney story comes from recent British political history -- the 2010 incident in which then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on an open mic disparaging a woman he’d just met as “bigoted.” Brown and his party, like Romney and Paul Ryan now, were running from behind, and the story both reinforced Brown’s image as a cold and arrogant man and completely overwhelmed news coverage at a critical moment for him.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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