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Gaffes don’t matter

By Ezra Klein,

The top Google result for “Mitt Romney gaffes” is About.com’s “Top 10 Dumbest Mitt Romney Gaffes.” The second is Mediaite’s “The 12 Worst Mitt Romney Gaffes Caught On Tape.” TheWeek.com lists “Mitt Romney’s 9 worst clueless-rich-man gaffes.” ABC News offers a story headlined “Mitt Romney admits he’s ‘haunted’ by past verbal gaffes.” We here at The Washington Post round out the front page with “Mitt Romney’s worst wealth gaffes (Video)”.

NBC News

Gaffes are amusing. But they don’t much matter.

Google “Barack Obama gaffes” and you get a pretty similar list. About.com has a round-up of “Gaffes and Obama-isms.” Mediaite has “The Biggest Obama Gaffes Caught On Tape.” There’s a Michelle Malkin post titled “Barack Obama: Gaffe machine.” The Telegraph contributes the “Top 10 gaffes by Barack Obama and Joe Biden”.

The lists will be familiar to anyone who has punished themselves by paying attention to the campaign. “Corporations are people, my friend,” appears on Romney’s various permanent records. So does “I like being able to fire people,” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Obama gets tagged for saying “people get bitter and cling to guns and religion” during a 2008 fundraiser, as well as for saying, at one point, that there were “57 states.” Friday’s comment will no doubt join those old favorites soon enough.

The symmetry of those lists gets to the key fact about gaffes: Both candidates make them. In fact, all candidates have them. In modern political campaigns, almost every utterance is taped, televised, and tweeted. And to get to the level where you’re a presidential nominee, you have to have made a lot of utterances. Some of them will be poorly worded. Some of those poorly worded comments will be noticed by reporters or other campaigns. And some of those will be blown up into “gaffes.” There’s no human being so eloquent that he or she could compete in today’s campaign environment without making a “gaffe” during some fundraiser or news conference.

And that’s exactly why these gaffes don’t matter. A voter leaning towards Obama has plenty of callous Romney quotes to help them make up their mind. A voter leaning towards Romney will find her way to the shocking Obama quotes that prove the current president is in over his head. A voter who, at this point in the campaign, remains undecided is so checked out from politics, or so firmly skeptical of both parties, that no one-off comment is going to change their mind.

This is not, by the way, a new opinion of mine. In January, when Romney seemed to be misspeaking rather often — “Congressional Republicans are worried Mitt Romney’s propensity for verbal gaffes will hurt him in the fall,” reported the Hill — I included gaffes on a list of “what won’t matter” in the 2012 election:

- Gaffes: During the course of the campaign, both men will say things that will be taken out of context and replayed endlessly on YouTube, cable news, etc. An example is Romney saying, in the context of a point about health care policy, that he likes being able to fire people who provide him with services. There will be plenty of comments like these on both sides. They are likely to be greeted with much glee by voters who already know who they’re voting for. They will help give people excuses to vote the way they want to vote. They are not likely to change many votes.

I made a similar argument when Romney’s communication director offered his infamous “etch a sketch” analysis of the campaign. “The election won’t be any different at all because of the Etch a Sketch comment,” I wrote. So I’ve been pretty consistent on this point. Gaffes might be easy and fun to cover. But there’s little evidence that they actually change anyone’s vote. Indeed, I’ve long enjoyed watching the polls in the aftermath of these kinds of comments: They never move.

And why should they? You have to have an extraordinarily low opinion of voters to say that in an election where the two candidates have such different policies, such different records, and such different coalitions, verbal miscues are going to be the deciding factor. And you have to have an extraordinarily low opinion of the two campaigns to think either side is going to have the slightest trouble cutting ads that make their opponent look like a grainy cannibal from planet Wants To Kill Your Grandma.

But as you might already have intuited from the traffic-baiting lists at the top of this post, gaffes don’t get covered because they move voters. They get covered because they generate traffic, most of it from partisans looking to hate on the candidates they’ve already decided to vote against. Which is fine. Partisans click through banner ads, too. But have a bit more respect for your fellow citizens than to think this stuff will actually shape the election.

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