Up until now, debate on the political impact of Mitt Romney's "47%" comments has been entirely speculative. That is no longer the case.
According to recently released New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac surveys — the first major polls to be conducted right after the emergence of the controversial video — Romney has suffered enormous setbacks in key swing states. He is behind by 9 points in Florida (53%-44%), 10 points in Ohio (53%-43%), and 12 points in Pennsylvania (54%-42%). At no point has his deficit ever been that significant in any of those states, and anyone who questions whether this is being reflected on a national level need look no further than the new Bloomberg Poll (also the first major one conducted post-47%), which shows Romney behind Obama by six points (49%-43%).
None of this means that Romney will definitely lose in November. Six weeks is a lifetime in the world of politics, and it's entirely possible that something will occur during that period (e.g., a blunder by Obama, a stellar debate performance by Romney, a bleak job report) that will take attention away from the "47%" comments and focus them on a subject more favorable to Romney's campaign.
Make no mistake about it, though, Romney's only hope of winning rests on his drawing attention away from those comments.
It is entirely possible that future historians will view this campaign as the story of a Republican candidate who overcame a major self-imposed setback to defeat his weak incumbent. There is no possibility that the "47%" comments will be remembered as anything other than a serious gaffe.
This speaks to a larger issue. For the past four years, the Republican Party has been seduced by the siren song of radicalism, both from its conservative and libertarian wings. It has mistaken the enthusiasm of its most zealous advocates as a sign that their nostrums represent the wave of America's political future. In doing so it has forgotten that, while their base might be enthused by extreme rhetoric and ideas, the independent voters who decide elections are invariably turned off by them. Two years ago this error cost them the Senate, as the GOP failed to control extremists who spurned moderate candidates that could have won in favor of radicals who inevitably lost (Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware). Now, unless Romney is able to shake off the "47%" comments, this same pandering to extremism — be it knowingly plutocratic (those wealthy donors at the Boca Raton dinner) or unwittingly plutocratic (the Tea Party) — will cost them the presidency.
The larger takeaway is clear. While red-baiting, fearmongering, Bible thumping, and open contempt for the poor may make the right-wing heart beat faster, they turn away the Americans who decide elections. If the GOP continues mistaking the din of its own little echo chamber for the roar of popular approval, they will pay the price.