The one chart you need to understand the timing of political gaffes


Todd Akin, during his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, made remarks about how a woman's body can block pregnancy in the event of a "legitimate rape." (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Both the Associated Press and National Journal argued in separate stories Monday that Democratic candidates for the Senate are missing key components of past electoral success: specifically, Republican candidates torching their own chances by saying controversial things.

The AP reports that "Democrats are still waiting for new bombshells and growing more anxious about the lack of incendiary material as they try to hold enough Senate seats to keep control of the chamber." The National Journal declares 2014's Todd Akin to be Todd Akin, who is back in the public eye with a book defending his 2012 remarks about how a woman's body can block pregnancy in the event of a "legitimate rape."

Something similar to Akin's comments, which almost certainly doomed his bid to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), haven't yet emerged in 2014. But, then, they hadn't emerged by July 14, 2012, either.

In fact, of the most regularly cited comments that helped sink Republican Senate candidates in recent years, only one had already emerged by this point in the election cycle — meaning that if the Democrats are relying solely on Republicans to ruin their own chances — an altogether weird strategy, we must say — they can at least hold out hope.

We looked at five examples, including Akin's, and spaced them out according to when they occurred in relation to Election Day (which is always the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November). That calendar looks like this:

gaffes

The five:

  • In August, 2006, then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) referred to a tracker from his opponent's campaign as "macaca." The racially loaded term ended up causing Allen to lose to Democrat Jim Webb.
  • In June 2010, the Post's Greg Sargent noted comments by Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) in which she called for "Second Amendment remedies" against Congress. Angle lost a close race to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), thanks in part to the perception that her politics were extreme.
  • In September 2010, Bill Maher ran an old appearance on his show from Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in which she said she had dabbled in witchcraft. This led to her much-parodied "I'm not a witch" campaign ad — and to her loss.
  • In August 2012, Akin made his comments. In October, Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock rose to Akin's defense with his own comments on rape and pregnancy ("that it is something that God intended to happen"). It was not a great idea.

The point is simple. At any moment between now and, basically, the weekend before Election Day, any candidate of any party can say something ridiculous or controversial or have past ridiculous or controversial comments unearthed, causing him or her to lose. This is why political campaigns spend a lot of money and a lot of time digging through candidates' backgrounds and following them with cameras. The Republican Party has been much more attentive to weeding out candidates who might be prone to such mistakes (the establishment opposed Akin and Angle when they ran, we'll note), but you can never actually weed out the mistakes.

If you're not going to win on the issues, you might as well win on the gaffes. And for gaffes, there's no time limit.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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