Biggest Campaign Gaffes in History
Historically, gaffes do not affect presidential campaigns much. Their impact is often overstated by the press. However, there are major presidential gaffes that have shaken up their respective races, including gaffes that happened to George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, and Howard Dean. Details about these gaffes as well as other political missteps can be seen below. Examples of gaffes were chosen when it was realized the gaffe changed the race extensively. Gaffes were also chosen based on how much they were talked about in the media and how much modern pundits and experts still speak about them.
- In the 2006 mid-term election race for a Virginia Senate seat, incumbent George Allen, a Republican, had a double-digit lead over his rival, James Webb. Some polls had him up by a 20-point lead, with a 16:1 fundraising advantage at one point in the race.
- In those days, Virginia often voted for Republican candidates. Because of this, Allen was presumed the winner before the race even began.
- On August 14, a video was leaked by the Webb campaign of Allen calling an Indian-American volunteer named S.R. Sidarth a racial slur.
- From there Allen continued to make racially-tinged comments, including an instance where he seemed to denounce his Jewish heritage by saying "My mother made great pork chops."
- By the end of August, after the video of him using a racial slur surfaced, polls were showing Webb ahead. Fundraising for James Webb increased gradually after the leak of the Allen video and shot up by the middle of September.
- By November 7th, Webb beat Allen by 9,000 votes in the election, which gave Democrats control of the Senate.
- Representative Bruce Braley (D) was the frontrunner in the 2014 Iowa Senate race. Polls had him winning the race against Republican Joni Ernst.
- Mr. Braley was very well-known in the northeastern quadrant of Iowa, but only 46% of Iowans statewide had an opinion of him. This number was taken just before the "farmer" video, hence, the scandal may have been the majority's first opinion of him.
- The "farmer" video describes the gaffe where Braley was caught on camera denigrating popular Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley as just "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school". He made this comment to a group of trial lawyers in January.
- This gaffe was run relentlessly in the media and attack ads. His words were portrayed as an attack on farmers in a state that values farming.
- Before the scandal, Braley was about 13 points ahead of Joni Ernst in the polls. By the end of the race, he lost by 8.5 points.
- Braley's race was described by many in the press as one of the worst races of 2014.
- In 1972, George McGovern needed a running mate at the Democratic National Convention. Many people thought Ted Kennedy would be his running mate, but he declined. So, at the last minute, McGovern chose Eagleton, a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War and the youngest attorney general in Missouri's history.
- However, because it was at the last minute, no background checks were done. It turned out that in the 1960s, Eagleton underwent some electroshock therapy sessions for depression. This spooked the Democratic establishment and many called for his replacement.
- Under immense pressure, McGovern remarked, "I am one thousand percent for Tom Eagleton and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket." However, the pressure grew too much for either of them to bear, and Eagleton eventually held a conference withdrawing his candidacy, 100 days before the election.
- This mishap caused Richard Nixon to win in a landslide. He became the first Republican to sweep the South while winning 520 electoral votes. McGovern only won 17 electoral votes.
- The 1988 election saw the Democratic frontrunner, Michael Dukakis, running against the Republican George H.W. Bush.
- Dukakis was heralded as the Democratic nominee in June. By then, he had a 17-point lead in the polls. To lessen the lead, the Bush campaign launched a blitz of ads against the Democratic nominee, questioning his patriotism, his mental health, and his ability to lead the country. This ad campaign was effective as Dukakis eventually gave up his 17-point lead by the beginning of September.
- The line of questioning about defense was effective as Americans worried about national security during the height of the Cold War; only 18% of Americans trusted Dukakis to defend the country. Some of his advisors pushed him to look like a military hawk, while others like Bill Clinton told him to play to his strengths: jobs, health care, and education.
- Dukakis ultimately chose to go the military route, posing in a military tank with an oversized helmet and a "dopey grin". His diminutive stature and his personality seemed antithetical to the photo. Hence, the Bush campaign launched ads mocking him and calling him soft on defense.
- Polls were finding that up to 25% of voters were less likely to vote for him and by Election Day, he had won only ten states and the District of Columbia.
- Howard Dean was a former Vermont Governor and Democratic candidate running against the likes of John Kerry in 2004. He was leading at some point heading into the Iowa Democratic caucuses. However, he finished third on the night of the Iowa caucuses.
- In trying to motivate his supporters, Dean gave his infamous speech: "Not only are we going to New Hampshire, we’re going to South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Arizona! And North Dakota! And New Mexico! We’re going to California! And Texas! And New York! And we’re going to South Dakota! And Oregon! And Washington and Michigan! And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Yaaaaaaaay!"
- This yelp was called the "Dean scream" and it became a meme of sorts during the 2004 election. The "Dean scream" was relentlessly mocked online and in famous comedy skits, such as the Chappelle Show.
- The relentless mocking caused him to lose to John Kerry by 12 points in the New Hampshire primary, and his candidacy never recovered.