That campaign glitch when Mitt Romney was caught disparaging the 47 per cent of Americans who skip federal income tax is starting to hurt him. By how much is not yet clear. In a new USA Today poll, just under a third of undecided voters said they took a dim view – just over half said it made no difference to them.
There is no one in the Republican fold who doesn't wish last week had never happened. It's surely a rule of politics that you don't insult the voter. Mr Romney said of almost half the nation: they "believe they are victims" and it is his "job not to worry" about them. No wonder he is now running all across the land pledging to lift up "the 100 per cent". Scratch that earlier thought, he is pleading. Oops.
But there are reasons that the sky may not have fallen completely. First among them is that the whole topic – tax brackets, tax exemptions and government benefits – is complicated. Also, while there was political ineptitude in Mr Romney's remarks to a donors' dinner party in May, they resonated more than most Democrats would like to admit. While most commentators deplored them, many on the right applauded.
The headline number, on the face it, does seem shocking and the right wing of the Republican Party was running with it long before Mr Romney. "People who pay nothing can easily forget the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch," warned Michele Bachmann when she was seeking the nomination. Similarly Governor Rick Perry, who said last year when he was also in contention: "We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society."
It's a message that helps hammer home the conservative creed that America, with Barack Obama's help, is becoming a country of big government or (gasp) a welfare state where the "producers" must carry the "parasites". (Those were the words of the Republican consultant Mary Matalin last week.) That is a theme that does hit home with Main Street because it is simple. But it is also simplistic if not downright dishonest and Mr Romney should have known better than to embrace it.
The largest sin is the way he and the Bachmann crowd elide "income taxes" and "taxes". It is true that roughly 47 per cent of adult Americans do not pay federal income tax today. But that does not mean they don't pay taxes on income. About 61 per cent of those singled out by Mr Romney work and contribute via payroll taxes, the equivalent to National Insurance in Britain. They can amount to more than 15 per cent of their incomes (a higher rate than has been paid of late by Mr Romney himself, by the way). Of the rest, 20 per cent are elderly or earn less than $20,000 a year and fall below the poverty line.
But back to federal income taxes – how is it that so many people are exempt? The short answer is that it is courtesy of a series of tax-cutting reforms, including credits for low-income families and families with children, put in place over recent decades on occasion by Democrats but much more eagerly by Republicans. The numbers escaping the income tax net shot up under Ronald Reagan, first, and then under George W Bush. It is also worth noting that Mr Romney is promising to cut income taxes across the board by one-fifth. That will help the "producers". He is not offering to cut payroll taxes. Thus the share of the burden on his "47 per cent" will grow. Know that and you start to pity the "freeloaders".
It gets worse, however. Mr Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have another easy-to-grasp message for voters: with its ever-growing deficit and debt the country is nearly bankrupt and things can't go on like this. Part of their answer resides in the pledge to cut income taxes. It's trickle-down time again: free the producers to prosper and all boats will rise. In case that doesn't pan out, they are also saying that to balance the books they must slash social programmes. So the approach is this: take half the country, insult it, make it pay a higher proportion of government receipts and then cut government support.
It will be some time, meanwhile, before we can gauge how deep the video tape damage to Mr Romney will be. If it ends up losing him the election, it will not be because of the economic arguments. Rather it will be because the video played in to the stereotype of the Republican candidate that he has been desperate to erase: that at bottom he is a rich guy who doesn't understand how most Americans live. Or even care very much.