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Inelegant damage

For months, analysts have been trying to understand why Mitt Romney can’t take the lead against an unsuccessful and somewhat unpopular president. The best explanation I’ve heard is the one offered four years ago to explain Romney’s inability to gain traction against John McCain, who lacked wide popularity with Republicans — Romney has trouble connecting with voters.

Romney has improved as a candidate since 2008. He looks less stiff, gives better speeches, and debates more effectively. But he still has trouble connecting with voters.

This is why Romney’s “47 percent statement” throws a monkey wrench into his effort to overtake President Obama. Substantively, Romney’s attempt to analyze the electorate isn’t exactly accurate, but comes close enough for a politician. Thematically, Romney simply restated his position that “if you want free stuff, vote for the other guy.”

But, as Romney concedes, his statement was “inelegant.” In this context, inelegant means damaging — damaging because it plays into the theme that Romney doesn’t understand or sympathize with ordinary Americans; damaging because it can be construed as writing off as parasites nearly half of the voting population of America; damaging because it therefore creates a new obstacle to Romney’s attempt to connect with ordinary voters.

This doesn’t mean the election is over. Romney is losing, but all is not lost. The election will be determined by the as yet undecided voters and by turnout among those who have a clear preference. Romney’s statement is unlikely to affect turnout. But it may well hurt him among the undecideds. If these voters held anything like the view Romney was trying to express, they wouldn’t be undecided.

In my view, undecided voters, to the extent one can generalize about them, are weighing Obama’s failed presidency against their sense that Romney doesn’t really care about ordinary folk. Romney’s inelegant statement reinforces their concern about Romney. But it does nothing to dispel their view of Obama. There’s reason to hope that, as is usually the case in presidential elections, concrete concerns about an unsuccessful incumbent will trump perceptions about the challenger.

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