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September 17, 2012 11:34 AM Party Polarization as Seen Through Two Romney Gaffes

By Seth Masket

In the past week, Mitt Romney has committed two fairly substantial gaffes with strikingly different responses by his campaign. (Yes, I recognize the word “gaffe” means different things to different people. For these purposes, let’s just say that a gaffe is an unnecessary utterance that forced the campaign off message for some considerable time period.)

  1. Last Sunday, Romney suggested that he’d maintain certain aspects of ACA, including the guarantee that insurance companies can’t deny people coverage for preexisting conditions.
  2. On Tuesday, Romney used an attack on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya as an opportunity to criticize Obama and suggest that the president was sympathizing with the attackers and apologizing for American values.

Now, needless to say, any presidential candidate is going to make mistakes. Anyone who spends that much time in front of a microphone with so much disorienting travel and so little real sleep is just bound to mess up once in a while. But what I found striking was the different reaction to these two statements by the Romney campaign.

On the ACA issue, the campaign walked back Romney’s statement within a few hours, trying to reassure people that his stance on health care since the primaries (Repeal Obamacare — full stop) hadn’t changed. The campaign calculated that the candidate moderating his stance on a major campaign issue would be more damaging than making him look wishy-washy for a day.

The campaign’s approach to the embassy attack comments, however, has been the complete opposite. Romney re-stated and even ramped up his rhetoric on the topic the next day. Then a staffer further suggested that the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi wouldn’t even have happened if a strong leader like Mitt Romney were in the White House. All this happened even while some prominent Republicans were publicly calling Romney’s utterances a serious mistake.

Why the different responses? Why did Romney’s campaign rapidly correct him in the first case but rally to reinforce him in the second? I believe it has something to do with the fact that, in the first case, Romney moved to the left, while in the second, Romney moved to the right. The first is seen as a problem; the second not so much.

This would seem to defy the median voter theorem, but then so much of modern American politics regularly does that. The calculation on Romney’s part may be that the people in the middle of the ideological spectrum are not paying close attention to events in North Africa right now; they’re still obsessed with the economy and probably won’t notice if Romney has grown too hawkish for them. The people on the right, however, are much more attentive to political news (as ideologically extreme people tend to be), and while he won’t alienate many of them for being to hawkish, he could really lose them if he goes squishy on health care, especially given his past with this issue. Even if Romney’s campaign is somewhat less a group of party people than other recent presidential campaigns, the fear of offending the right, and the relative lack of fear of offending the middle, nonetheless remains the norm.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.