Mitt Romney's 'Clinging to Guns or Religion' Moment

Why a secret recording from a fundraiser is very bad news for the Republican nominee 


Speaking to a closed-door gathering of donors to his campaign, Mitt Romney made disparaging remarks about 47 percent of Americans. He didn't realize he was being secretly recorded.

Almost half of all Americans "believe that they are victims," he said, explaining that "these are people who pay no income tax," and think they're entitled to food, shelter, and medical care. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he said, so "my job is not to worry about those people." If you're cutting Obama ads, this is as good as it gets. 

Josh Barro predicts that this will cost Mitt Romney the election. It certainly plays into the criticism that he doesn't care about poor people and will govern on behalf of wealthier Americans.

But it also reminds me of Barack Obama's infamous statement during the 2008 election that rural voters "get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion." Those words were also said to donors at a private event, and broadcast only when a secret recording was made public. Rural voters aren't 47 percent of the electorate, but folks who like guns or religion are a rather large demographic.   

These sorts of remarks do double damage.

They needlessly insult some people whose votes the candidate would like to win. And beyond the particulars of what is said, they remind voters that candidate's public persona is phony and affected. 

Four years ago a lot of people felt they got a glimpse of "the real Obama." They certainly saw a side of him that he hid when speaking to general audiences, as opposed to urban liberal supporters. 

People will react the same way when they see this Romney tape. They'll decide, first of all, that he thinks a surprisingly broad swath of America is composed of losers who won't take responsibility for themselves. As damning, they'll see that the Romney of debates, speeches, and TV commercials speaks differently than the Romney who gets together with his moneyed backers.

On some level, Americans know politicians are phonies.

But you can't help liking a candidate less when you see that there really are rooms full of rich people where he seems to level with everyone much more than he does with the average American. You think, His opponent is right -- he really is hiding his true opinions!

It is truly amazing what a different view of politics the donor class gets. Obama plays to rooms like this too. This cycle, he's managed to keep his words from leaking (or perhaps, after his experience in the last cycle, he's more careful about what he says). As such, expect the Obama campaign to start using footage from the hidden video to start attacking Romney any day now. And know that if you could hear what Team Obama says when they think no one is listening, it would likely be every bit as off-putting (if substantively different). Politicians behave in public as if they're idealists with genuine affection for all Americans. It's unnerving to see how cynical and calculating they really are, though voters would do well to remember it always.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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