Compare these two quotes:
Exhibit A: Obama Is a Muslim?
"Why does the president behave the way that people would think [that Obama is a Muslim]?" Gingrich said in response. "You have to ask why would they believe that? It's not cause they're stupid. It's because they watch the kind of things I just described to you."
Exhibit B: Might as well Vote for Obama As Romney:It is highly unlikely that Gingrich thinks people who genuinely believe Obama is a Muslim are not stupid. Gingrich, I am dead certain, considers all kinds of people stupid and, not being dumb himself, I am sure he knows that issuing a strategic apology for burning holy books--or for urinating on corpses while filming it--is not enough to actually make intelligent people believe Obama is a follower of Islam.
"You win by giving people a choice. You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there. If you’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future,” Santorum told a crowd at USAA.
Similarly, it seems unlikely that Santorum, who is also a bright guy, believes it is possible that a President Romney would be further left than President Obama--no matter how hard he was shaken.
So why'd he say that?
There are two reasons. The first, especially with regards to the Santorum statement, is that it might possibly hurt Romney--who knows, right? But the second reason is that for both of them, their constituency expects it. If Gingrich were to stop going after Obama on religion his support would dry up. If Newt were to say "Obama is a Christian" and leave it at that he wouldn't be the heroic guy who will fight him tooth and nail.
If Santorum said "Well, yeah, Romney's better than Obama" (and you can read the walk-back here: he says he'll support whoever wins the nomination--not 'I'll support Romney) then his 'brand' would start drying up because to his base he's the guy who is supposed to save us from RINO Romney.
Does Romney Have a Brand? Obama?
I think every politician does. Consider this (Wikipedia):
Brand is the personality that identifies a product, service or company (name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or combination of them) and how it relates to key constituencies: customers, staff, partners, investors etc.
Some people distinguish the psychological aspect, brand associations like thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and so on that become linked to the brand, of a brand from the experiential aspect.
The experiential aspect consists of the sum of all points of contact with the brand and is known as the brand experience. The brand experience is a brand's action perceived by a person. The psychological aspect, sometimes referred to as the brand image, is a symbolic construct created within the minds of people, consisting of all the information and expectations associated with a product, service or the company(ies) providing them.All these politicians are basically products. They have images, feelings, and perceptions associated with them. Romney, for example, is the high-end college politician. I am sure that if you take his demographic (moderate Republicans with high incomes and college educations) you would find a very well defined target demographic in cars, clothes, electronics, and so on that marketers try to sell to. We know the opposite is true of Santorum--and both these candidates are so strongly branded that, in fact, their demographics have been highly predictive in this race.
What's This Mean?
I think it means that so long as each candidate plays to their brands they're probably okay. Santorum caught a lot of heat for his Better-Obama-Than-Romney remark but I don't think that'll actually hurt him. It's still within his brand (although, maybe not: maybe part of his brand is that Obama is worst of all). Similarly for Gingrich: people who don't like the Obama-is-a-Muslim thing were never going to vote for Newt anyway. That's how this works.
On the other hand, the Etch-A-Sketch remark Romney's adviser made could hurt him. His 'brand' is not about his flip-flops (or, well, his positive brand, anyway). Nate Silver points out that although we know that Romney is flopping around like an asphyxiating fish the rest of the world doesn't. So if Santorum, Gingrich, and, yes, Obama keep hammering on it? It may permeate the public consciousness in a way that Santorum's comments don't.
I read Erick Erickson (RedState) saying that it takes about a week for negative comments to take hold. I don't know if that's true--but I'd be interested to see if any of the races about five days out get less rosy for Romney.
What Do I Think?
I think Romney considers it a strength for the general that he doesn't say things like Newt--or go after social issues like Rick Santorum. He gets a lot of heat for it now but it should pay off later ... unless his rivals force him too far to the right ... and he can't shake himself clear.