Biggest Campaign Gaffes in History

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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.

George Allen

Bruce Braley

  • 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.

George McGovern

Michael Dukakis

  • 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

  • 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.
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Why Gaffes No Longer Matter

Majority of candidates have gaffe "moments." According to political commentators, this makes gaffes obsolete. Other times, the average American does not care or has a different understanding from the news media and political commentators about what entails a "gaffe." Furthermore, studies have shown that there is little evidence that gaffes change the decision of voters. Sometimes the effects of the blunders is unclear. These are among the reasons why gaffes no longer matter.

Most candidates have gaffe "moments"

  • All candidates have gaffes, is an argument made in a Washington Post article about gaffes and why they don't matter, and it still makes sense in the 2020 elections.
  • Ezra Klein, then political blogger for the Washington Post argued that in the modern political space, everything is recorded, televised and tweeted. Most nominees for any public seat usually make a lot of utterances in the course of their political careers and campaign trails. Some of these utterances are poorly worded, while some are taken out of context and blown up into gaffes.
  • According to the Washington Post, modern campaign environments are not without missteps in speech, and that is because no one is perfect.
  • In addition, voters that lean towards a candidate, usually have callous quotes against the opposing candidate to prove that the other candidate is in over his head. Mitt Romney supporters, had gaffes of former President Obama's gaffes and vice versa.

Gaffes hardly change anyone's vote

  • Ezra Klein claims to have covered gaffes and watched polls in election periods and made the conclusion that "there is little evidence that they actually change anyone’s vote."
  • According to Klein, it is hard for voters to suddenly change their opinions on two different policies, records and coalitions because of a verbal miscue. He adds that it is hard, even for the campaigns themselves, to major on gaffes made by opponents. Klein adds that campaigns don't actually use gaffes to change voter's opinions but to generate traffic.
  • John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University reviewed five gaffes from a 2008 campaign which were marked as significant. In his study, he found that they; "basically had no impact on voters nationwide."
  • Another review by political scientists, Robert S. Erickson and Christopher Wlezien arrived at similar conclusions, that such campaign shocks are normal in the 100 days preceding party conventions. Such shocks are large, but also temporary. News about the campaign affects the voters but is eventually forgotten and therefore has little impact on the outcome.

Gaffes are often exaggerated by the news media and campaign teams

  • According to the Washington Post, gaffes don't get covered because they change voter's opinion on a candidate. Rather, they are mostly reported because they generate traffic from partisans looking to hate the candidate they are voting against.
  • FiveThirtyEight asserts that"gaffes often resonate more with news media than with voters." The article quoted a study that found that their impact is usually overstated by those covering campaigns.
  • Too many reporters often chase a few stories in presidential campaigns. When little news is being made, the demand for perverse coverage is strong. Sometimes it costs the editors lots of resources to conduct investigations and report enterprise stories on elections. Getting creative with a gaffe is less costly.

Gaffes' effects are not always clear

  • In the book Tides of Consent, James Stimson, a UNC political scientist, asserts that the effect of gaffes is not always clear even during high profile presidential debates. Stimson gave the example of a 1976 presidential contest where Gerald Ford gained ground over Jimmy Carter, even after he falsely claimed that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union.
  • A 2012 study was conducted on the effects of former President Obama saying that the private sector was "doing fine" when it was not. The study by Gallup showed an increase in the then incumbent's approval ratings from 46%, before the gaffe to 49%, 3 days after the gaffe.

Americans don't care whether candidates are prone to gaffes

  • According to Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania "average Americans don’t think that what insiders consider a gaffe truly is a gaffe." What the news media, political pundits, insiders and commentators think about gaffes is often different from what the average Americans thinks. Other times, according to Rendell, the average American "doesn't care whether candidates are prone to gaffes."
  • Rendell was defending 2020 presidential aspirant Joe Biden's comment that "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids." While the political elites may have made a big deal out of it, the average American may not have found any fault in the statement.
  • Rendell adds that confusing and inaccurate stories made by Ronald Reagan and frequent gaffes by George Bush did not affect their presidencies. In fact, President Reagan went on to win in a landslide election and Bush was elected twice. According to Rendell, Americans view gaffes as a reflection of passion, emotion, authenticity and genuineness n his speech.
  • The article also points out President Trump's inaccuracies when talking about the revolutionary war, and the fact that it did not affect his approval ratings.

Research Strategy

The research team came across articles dating as early as 2012. Although they are outdated as per AskWonder's standards, we found them particularly useful in this context.

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