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Do Gaffes Matter?

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, June 4, 2012.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks during a meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, June 4, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Debate with President Gerald Ford (Foreign and Defense Issues) (October 6, 1976) Jimmy Carter

Political analysts and pundits are abuzz over a press conference last Friday in which President Barack Obama said, “the private sector is doing fine.” Ezra Klein contends that President Obama’s original message was mangled and lost. Before his comments on the private sector, the president was discussing the global economic crisis and said, “Given the signs of weakness in the world economy, not just in Europe but also some softening in Asia, it's critical that we take the actions we can to strengthen the American economy right now.” President Obama was also using the press conference to push his administration’s plans for recovery at home. The president’s private sector comment actually sounds to me like a point made by New York Times op-ed columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman during our 2012 Election National Discussion and Debate Series on the Economy in April. During the debate, Krugman asserted that one of the most unique attributes of the economic recovery was that it largely benefited the private sector. Chris Cilliza of The Fix at the Washington Post asserted yesterday that President Obama’s remarks will be fodder for the election. That got us thinking about historical examples and the conditions under which gaffes might matter in the election.

Looking in our archives, we found this gem in which President Gerald Ford blundered during a nationally televised debate with Jimmy Carter on October 6, 1976 when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” At the time, all the countries in Eastern Europe had Communist governments and were under the Soviet sphere of influence; some were even occupied by Soviet troops. The real gaffe was President Ford’s ongoing refusal to admit he made a mistake, which resulted in negative press coverage that may have hurt him in the close race. It is also interesting to note that in the subsequent debate on October 22, Robert Maynard, editorial writer for the Washington Post, questioned Governor Carter on whether the apathetic electorate in that year was the result of the a campaign that frequently digressed on important issues into allegations of blunders and brainwashing and fixations on lust in Playboy.

Another gem comes from Mitt Romney’s father in the 1968 campaign for the Republican nomination. George Romney flip-flopped on Vietnam, initially supporting the war, but later arguing he had been “brainwashed” by the Generals. The “brainwashing” comment killed his campaign before the first presidential primary in the 1968 election.

Bill Clinton deftly rescued his national image after bungling the biggest speech of his early career. In 1988, he was chosen to give one of the nominating speeches for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention that year. He delivered a long, boring speech emphasizing policy and programs that many thought would doom his chances to run for President. Clinton quickly appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson to poke fun at himself.

Both candidates have already made their fair share of mistakes in this election and will certainly continue to make them between now and November. So what lessons might we take from these brief historical anecdotes? First, it might be worth admitting the mistake and moving on to mitigate ongoing press coverage (keeping in mind, though, that press will still likely have their regular frenzies over any and all minor blunders). Second, how much is made of gaffe also depends on the extent to which the opposition makes a big deal of it. Third, timing matters. The election is still nearly five months away, so there is plenty of time for a mistake by either candidate and plenty of time for voters to assess how much the mistakes really matter. Finally, the level of electorate engagement and the electorate’s assessment of each candidate’s achievements ultimately matter most. In that sense, President Obama’s remarks last Friday matter to the extent that the electorate already has a negative assessment of his leadership on economic matters or on his economic philosophy.

Do gaffes matter to you in your candidate evaluations before voting? Does media coverage of and campaigning on gaffes contribute to voter apathy? Tell us what you think.

 

 

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