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The Top 10 political events of 2012


Editor's note: Over the next few days, First Read will be recapping the year in politics. Our first entry: what we consider the Top 10 political events of 2012.

1. "47 percent": A surreptitiously recorded video of Mitt Romney, released on Sept. 17 by Mother Jones, didn't lose the presidential contest for the Republicans. But it cemented the impression of Romney that the Obama campaign wanted to portray -- as a multi-millionaire whose business history and policies ignored average Americans.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang and Republican pollster Bill McInturff join The Daily Rundown to break down the latest NBC News/ WSJ poll, which shows a narrow gap between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. The poll also shows that Romney's comments about the 47 percent has hurt him in the race.

In the video, from a closed-door fundraiser in May, Romney tells wealthy donors that the "47 percent" of the country that doesn't pay income taxes, that is dependent on government, and that believes "they are victims" will vote for President Obama no matter what. He adds in the video: "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Romney first responded that his comments were "not elegantly stated," and he later said they were "completely wrong." But the damage was done. The Obama campaign and its allies pounced on the "47 percent" comments in numerous TV ads (like here and here). In the end, according to the exit polls, 53 percent of voters said that Obama was more in touch with people like them than Romney was, and another 53 percent said Romney's policies would generally favor the rich. The irony: Romney won just 47 percent of the popular vote.

2. The Democratic convention: This year was another reminder that political conventions do matter in presidential contests. After the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. -- which featured well-received speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, former President Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama -- the Dem ticket got a noticeable bump in state and national polls. The convention also served as a turning point for Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who delivered a primetime address. (Before the speech, Warren was trailing in most polls; afterward, she jumped into the lead.)

By comparison, Romney received little to no bump in the polls after the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. Indeed, Romney's own acceptance speech was overshadowed by Clint Eastwood's impromptu -- and bizarre -- remarks to an empty chair (which he pretended to be Obama) on the convention's final night.

Clint Eastwood admitted his unscripted, 12-minute RNC speech on Aug. 30 was "very unorthodox," but he says he felt his message got across to the audience he was trying to reach. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

3. The Denver debate: After the convention season and after the "47 percent" video surfaced, Romney's presidential candidacy hung by a thread -- polls showed Obama pulling away and news reports uncovered turmoil within the Romney camp. But just about two weeks later, Romney would have his strongest moment of the presidential campaign. At the first presidential debate, in Denver on Oct. 3, Romney shined and Obama fell flat. Afterward, Romney began to gain on Obama in national and some state polls, and his campaign touted that it had the momentum in final weeks, even after Obama was viewed as the victor in the other two debates. But in the end, the Denver debate wasn't enough to erase Romney's rough summer and September.

NBC's Mark Murray discusses the implications of last night's debate in Denver, CO.

4. The Supreme Court's health-care decision: Here's a thought exercise: Imagine if the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Obama's landmark health-care law. Such a ruling would have deprived the president of his signature domestic achievement, and would have allowed Romney to charge that Obama wasted his first year in office on an unconstitutional endeavor. It's impossible to know how the presidential election would have turned out after that hypothetical outcome, but it's safe to say that such a ruling probably wouldn't have helped Obama.

In the end, however, the Supreme Court upheld the health-care law by a narrow 5-4 majority on June 28. And the ruling served as a sort of turning point in the summer: Before, Obama's campaign was struggling (the news from the monthly jobs reports were disappointing, and Republicans pounced on Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" remarks). After, it was the Romney campaign that struggled (the scrutiny over Romney's tax returns and work at Bain Capital, plus the mixed reviews of his overseas trip to Europe and the Middle East).

5. Hurricane Sandy: Here's a second thought exercise: What if Hurricane Sandy had never pummeled the East Coast in late October and hadn't allowed the incumbent Obama to demonstrate presidential leadership or bipartisanship (with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) after a natural disaster? While the hurricane probably wasn't a decisive event in the election -- Romney's momentum after the first debate was already waning -- it helped Obama. According to the exit polls, 42 percent said the president's response to Sandy was important in their vote, and Obama won those voters by a 68 percent-to-31 percent margin.

Larry Downing / Reuters

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with survivors of Hurricane Sandy in a community center while touring damaged areas in Brigantine, N.J, Oct. 31, 2012. Obama and Christie put aside partisan differences to visit storm-swamped parts of New Jersey together and oversee relief efforts after the devastation of the storm Sandy.

6. "Legitimate rape": If the "47 percent" tape cemented the impression of Romney as an out-of-touch multi-millionaire, then Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" remark put an exclamation mark on the Republican Party's struggles with female voters. In an interview on Aug. 19, Akin -- the GOP nominee in Missouri's Senate contest -- explained his opposition to abortion in cases of rape, saying that pregnancies by rape are rare. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Akin went on to lose his race against endangered incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. (Republicans also lost another winnable Senate race, in Indiana, after the GOP nominee made another controversial comment on rape.) And in the presidential contest, Obama won female voters by 11 percentage points, 55 percent to 44 percent.

Both Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, called Missouri Republican Senate frontrunner Todd Akin to express their disapproval at Akin's comment about 'legitimate rape' but Akin has said he will not quit the race. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

7. The Michigan primary: You might not remember it, but there was a time -- in February -- when it wasn't clear that Mitt Romney would be the GOP's presidential nominee. Back then, according to some polls, Romney was trailing Rick Santorum in the upcoming Feb. 28 Michigan primary. A loss in Romney's native state would have sent Republican leaders into a panic, and might have sparked a movement to draft another Republican into the race. In the end, however, Romney edged Santorum in Michigan by three percentage points, 41 percent to 38 percent, and he later went on to wrap up the GOP nomination.

8. The South Carolina primary: But there also was a time when it appeared that Romney would wrap up the nomination early. He won the Iowa caucuses by the narrowest of margins and then triumphed in New Hampshire's primary. A win in the next contest -- in South Carolina on Jan. 21 -- would have effectively ended the fight for the nomination and would have given Romney more months to prepare for a general-election fight against Obama.

But then came adversity for Romney: Newt Gingrich routed him in South Carolina's primary, and then it was determined that Santorum -- and not Romney -- had won in Iowa. Romney later regrouped in Florida and Michigan. But instead of the general election beginning in earnest in January or February, Romney didn't essentially clinch the GOP nomination until April, when Santorum suspended his campaign. 

9. Benghazi: On Sept. 11, attacks were launched on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt and a consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Obama administration officials gave the impression that an anti-Muslim video sparked both attacks. (And Romney was criticized for firing off a statement blasting the embassy in Egypt for condemning the "efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.")

But as it was later determined, the Benghazi attack was a coordinated terrorist act, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Under intense GOP criticism for initially linking the Benghazi attack to the anti-Muslim video, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in December withdrew her name from consideration of being Obama's next secretary of state.

President Obama defends U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, as a possible replacement for Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, against criticism from Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham on the Benghazi attacks in Libya.

10. The Ryan pick: Not since John F. Kennedy tapped Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate in 1960 has a VP selected greatly impacted a presidential contest, at least in a positive way for the ticket. And that streak held true in 2012 after Romney picked Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on Aug. 11 to be his VP sidekick -- Romney, after all, ended up losing Wisconsin by seven points, 53 percent to 46 percent. But the selection ended months of speculation about Romney's eventual choice, and it further elevated Ryan into the national spotlight.