3Qs: Off-​​the-​​cuff comments bring candidates to “dangerous political territory”

Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial nom­inee Mitt Romney has drawn crit­i­cism for making con­tro­ver­sial com­ments that were sur­rep­ti­tiously recorded at a pri­vate fundraiser in Florida in May and then pub­lished on the Internet by Mother Jones last Monday. In the video, Romney can be heard crit­i­cizing the 47 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who, he said, pay no fed­eral taxes, feel enti­tled to gov­ern­ment pro­grams and “who will vote for the pres­i­dent no matter what.” We asked Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to examine the impact of those com­ments and the cur­rent state of the race to the White House between Romney and Pres­i­dent Obama.

Political science professor Robert Gilbert weighs in on Mitt Romney’s controversial comments that were surreptitiously recorded at a private fundraiser and then posted on the Internet. Photo by istockphoto.

According to a poll released last week, 36 percent of people said Romney’s comments would decrease their likelihood of voting for the Republican challenger. What is it about Romney's off-the-cuff statements that resonated so much with voters? How might these comments and their fallout affect the campaign?

Even before the two parties held their conventions this summer, the Democrats launched a major TV effort to shift attention away from the economy, at least as much as possible, and make Romney’s character — and his status as an “uncaring multimillionaire” — the decisive issue in the campaign. Polls indicate that they had some degree of success. Romney’s recent condescending remarks about the “47 percent of Americans” who (supposedly) pay no taxes contribute materially to the Democrats’ campaign to shape public perceptions of Romney as an uncaring, harsh rich man out of touch with those who aren’t rich. The Democrats couldn’t have done this any better than Romney himself now has.

What must candidates do to overcome unguarded statements like Romney's or Obama's comments at a pre-election 2008 fundraiser, in which he characterized some rural voters as those who "cling" to religion and guns? Is there a point when a campaign must accept that certain voters are no longer on the table as potential supporters?

Candidates for president — and even presidents themselves — are human beings and human beings make mistakes. With all the personal appearances, press conferences and conversations that candidates for president have over the many, many months of a campaign, inadvertent, unscripted and damaging remarks are bound to occur. Romney, however, seems to be particularly vulnerable here. For example, when he traveled to London this past summer, he seemingly and gratuitously criticized the British for their handling of the Olympics, even though he had nothing specific to criticize. Understandably, this didn’t please his hosts.

With regard to writing off certain groups of voters, candidates — especially those in close elections — try to win every vote they possibly can. But I’m sure that Obama has no real expectations of winning over Tea Partiers and that Romney has no genuine hopes of doing well with African-Americans.

With approximately six weeks to go until the election, does it appear that economic issues will continue to be the primary focus of both campaigns? What impact could the recent events in the Middle East have on the dialogue over issues between Romney and Obama?

For presidents, a bad economy — especially one with rising unemployment levels — is particularly damaging to their personal popularity. So President Obama needs to have real concern here, especially if economic news in October and early November is negative. But Romney himself has now become a significant issue in the campaign and polls in a number of swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia have begun to show gains for the president. This can surely change over the coming weeks but Republicans are certainly unhappy with current trends.


With regard to the recent violence in the Middle East, I would expect that it will have no significant effect on the Obama-Romney dialogue. First, in political campaigns, domestic concerns tend to trump foreign policy. Second, here, too, Romney seemed to speak out before all the facts were known. A challenger who becomes an issue unto himself in a campaign is occupying dangerous political territory.


  1. It would be nice if the uni­ver­sity actu­ally reported both sides of the story here. For starters, the inter­viewer only asked ques­tions that were essen­tially loaded against Romney, in a clear effort to cast him in a neg­a­tive light. Sec­ondly, the final ques­tion and answer about the Middle East COMPLETELY gloss over the fact that the Obama admin­is­tra­tion repeat­edly called the attack in Libya, which resulted in the death of six Amer­i­cans including an ambas­sador, as a protest against a film. We now know that to be false. This was a planned ter­rorist attack. Fur­ther­more, the lack of secu­rity in and around the Libyan com­pound demon­strated that the US gov­ern­ment failed to heed warn­ings given just weeks prior to the amassador’s death. So, we have an admin­is­tra­tion that is trying to cover up the true facts about this being a ter­rorist attack, and an admin­is­tra­tion that is down­playing the incred­ible secu­rity failure both before and after the attack in Libya. This is shameful jour­nalism, or attempt at jour­nalism, by the North­eastern stu­dents and fac­ulty. It would be wise to actu­ally do some fac­tual research in the future. Not all stu­dents at this campus are lib­erals who drink the Koolaid.

  2. So where’s the opposing view? Less than two months before a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, that would be respon­sible jour­nalism and serve the best inter­ests of readers. Why not have someone com­ment about Obama’s “con­den­scending remarks,” e.g.: “If you’ve got a busi­ness, you didn’t build that.” Bet mil­lions of hard-​​working, tax-​​paying Amer­i­cans who own busi­nesses didn’t appre­ciate that.

  3. Mau­reen, Obama’s actu­ally been playing it very safe, acting like an expe­ri­enced can­di­date for office. For instance, Obama’s “You didn’t build that” quote is grossly mis­quoted in cam­paign ads– the Pres­i­dent was refer­ring to roads, bridges and tun­nels that were funded from public money. There was no profit to be made for any busi­ness, seeing as these are public ser­vices uti­lized by numerous par­ties with little to no regard for lim­i­ta­tion and pay­ment. There­fore the gov­ern­ment pro­vides for roads and bridges, for public benefit.

    No busi­nessman in their right mind would have built “that.” I sup­pose the only thing wrong with the quote is the fact that Obama said “that” and not “those,” cre­ating a sub­ject con­fu­sion issue.

  4. Hmm, I wonder who you are voting for? These are the “talking points” of democ­rats. Why do you also not write an article regarding Obama’s view of the mideast crisis ” there will be bumps in the road” OR ” we know other coun­tries don’t have the values of free speech “WE ACCEPT THAT” (clear unadul­ter­ated capit­u­la­tion to the audi­ence he wants to like him) OR not telling the truth about the planned murder of three Amer­i­cans by ter­roists instead of blam­ming it on a video. Come on now, do you really think intel­li­gent folks will accept your analysis without any attempt by you to offer fair and bal­anced views. Per­haps you can offer another report which crit­i­cizes Obama and an HONEST assess­ment of his actual per­for­mance (NOT his rhetoric) — I doubt it!!

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