Is welfare a wedge issue for Mitt Romney?

Is Mitt Romney trying to stoke white resentment to beat President Obama?

Romney marked the 16th anniversary of the signing of the Welfare Reform Act on Wednesday with a press release that declared, “Don’t expect President Obama to mark the occasion after just last month gutting the historic work requirements.” A day earlier, the Romney campaign released a web video titled “Only in America” featuring Danny Vargas, a businessman who claims he grew up in Brooklyn on welfare. Vargas says he broke the cycle of dependency and gained economic independence thanks to the work requirement in welfare reform and goes on to blame President Obama for stripping it from welfare.

It was Romney’s second web and third television ad about Obama’s alleged changes to welfare reform. The claim itself has been debunked numerous times by non-partisan fact-checkers. PolitiFact rated one of the ads “pants on fire,” Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post gave the claim four Pinocchios and said it was “simply untrue.” (The actual change of policy is that the administration has said it would allow states to seek waivers from some welfare rules, as long as their new measures would move at least 20 percent more people to work. In 2005, Romney was among several Republican governors who signed a letter asking for more flexibility in welfare.)

But the wholesale debunking of the central claim has not stopped the presumptive GOP nominee from running the ad or even prompted him to modify it. In fact, he and running mate Paul Ryan have doubled down. They repeat the charge on the stump frequently, telling voters that Romney would put work back in the federal program.

In an election where the economy is the number one issue, spending so much time on an issue that barely registers in polls may seem like a gamble. However, it plays into the larger picture Republicans have tried to paint of the president, who they have repeatedly accused of encouraging government dependency. While the majority of welfare recipients are white, the program is most associated with poor blacks. By portraying Obama as someone who doles out free stuff to lazy, undeserving minorities, they could drive up anti-Obama resentment among white, working-class voters.

In polls, while Romney leads in the white vote, Obama is collecting about 40 percent of it. With Obama’s huge leads among black and Hispanic voters, Romney’s most obvious path to victory is dominating the white vote, as the GOP did in 2010.

“Everybody who’s looked at this says what Gov. Romney’s saying is absolutely wrong,” President Obama said Monday in an impromptu press briefing. “They can run the campaign they want, but the truth of the matter is you can’t just make stuff up.”

Apparently, the Romney campaign begs to differ. They have obviously have concluded that the issue is a political winner for them with no significant downside for lying.

Some analysts and observers have called the ads racist. Michael Tesler, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University, found that the ad that the ad “may well contribute to the growing polarization of public opinion by racial attitudes beyond the voting booth in the age of Obama.” Tesler examined data from a YouGov survey of respondents who were asked to view the Romney ad and concluded that it resonated with people who have more conservative views on racial issues.

In his analysis, he added, “Such code words as ‘welfare’ and ‘inner-city,’ especially when combined with racial imagery (e.g., the hardworking whites in Romney’s ad), can make racial attitudes a more central determinant of political evaluation. One might therefore expect the welfare ad to activate racial attitudes in public opinion.”

Romney seems to be piggy-backing onto the line used in the primary by Newt Gingrich, who he drew huge applause from conservatives for dubbing Obama “the food stamp president.”

Ryan is doing his part to stoke resentment among that group by reminding them of a problematic comment Obama made during the 2008 primary. “I’m a Catholic deer hunter,” he told the crowd at a steel-manufacturing plant in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “I am happy to be clinging to my guns and my religion.”

It remains to be seen whether this approach will pay dividends for Mitt Romney among independents or simply gin up more anti-Obama anger with the GOP base.