Unscripted moments matter in presidential campaigns, and a week’s worth of foreign policy controversy and leaked videos has wounded Mitt Romney.
But it’s too soon to tell whether the 2012-vintage moments will ultimately be footnotes or game-changers.
“Did Romney’s Libya remarks and the video change the race? No. Did it have an impact? Yes,” said Evans Witt, the chief executive officer at Princeton Survey Research Associates International, a nonpartisan research firm.
New polling suggested that Romney has fallen behind President Barack Obama in key swing states. Quinnipiac Polling Institute surveys Sept. 11-17 in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin registered gains for Obama as Romney questioned the administration’s policy toward Egypt and Libya. Fox News polls Sunday through Tuesday, as other turmoil surfaced, had Obama up 7 percentage points in Ohio and 5 in Florida.
In six national polls taken since Sept. 12 and compiled by the website RealClearPolitics, Obama was ahead by an average of 3.1 percentage points.
Analysts did find that Romney’s controversies posed problems for the Republican presidential candidate because they often reinforced impressions that undecided voters already have and they muzzled the campaign’s economic message.
“This just doesn’t help Romney. This is not what he wants to be talking about, or have others talking about,” said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
The latest tumult began late on Sept. 11, when Romney rushed to criticize Obama as news was still emerging of an attack on a consulate in Libya. His criticisms broke with a long-standing political tradition of nonpartisanship in times of crisis.
As that uproar was subsiding, a video emerged Monday showing Romney telling a Florida fundraiser about the “47 percent who are with him (0bama) who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”
Moments to remember? Or blips in a campaign that still has nearly seven weeks and three presidential debates to go?
Sometimes the moments are blown up by the news media, only to ultimately mean little.
In 1984, a 73-year-old President Ronald Reagan appeared disoriented during his first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale, who was 17 years younger. Yet in their second debate two weeks later, Reagan’s response ended any controversy. "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience," Reagan joked. Reagan went on to win 49 states in a landslide.
This year alone, media pundits have declared the race over multiple times – all with Romney having lost – including Romney’s pick of Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns, the appearance of Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention and former President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention.
Sometimes such moments do signal a turning point, particularly when they crystallize a story line that’s already developing in voters’ minds.
“These moments can have a profound impact,” said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. “Osama bin Laden’s tape cost us the election.”
That Oct. 29, a video had surfaced of bin Laden saying, “Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al Qaida. Your security is in your own hands.”
President George W. Bush had maintained a small lead throughout most of the fall, though the Kerry forces say the Democrat was gaining. With the fresh reminder that bin Laden remained a threat, Bush won the Nov. 2 election with 50.7 percent of the popular vote.
The outcome reinforced the impression many voters had of Bush – he’d protect them from terrorism – the kind of impact that such moments usually have.
In September 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon’s nervous, sweat-laced demeanor contrasted with the little-known John Kennedy’s smooth, tan, relaxed appearance. It’s often thought to have bolstered Kennedy’s image as the energetic leader of a new generation.
Other moments also are viewed as significant: Democrat Michael Dukakis’ ride in a tank in September 1988, which instantly became an example of how to look un-presidential. Republican Bob Dole, then 73, falling off a stage in September 1996, and pictured crumpled on the ground. Republican John McCain suspending his 2008 campaign that September and returning to Washington to lead the bid to ease the financial industry crisis, an effort that wound up embarrassing the hapless McCain.
At the time they occurred, though, such moments didn’t induce most experts or voters to declare the races over or even significantly transformed. Nor did they usually trigger big changes in polls.
The most glaring exception came in October 1980, during a debate a week before an election that was deemed too close to call. Challenger Ronald Reagan uttered his “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” line, and leaped ahead of President Jimmy Carter in national polls.
So far, though, the Romney turmoil follows the pattern of other fall campaign moments: They tell voters what they already thought they knew, and whether that helps or hurts the candidate is yet to be known.
After all, Witt said, “It’s not fair to say these events give you a completely new picture of who Romney is and what he thinks.”