For Trump, it wasn't. In fact, one could argue that the comment made his campaign — or at least set the tone for it; the ensuing fight with Univision sparked the flood of media attention that allowed Trump to crowd his 16 opponents off the airwaves.
Over the next 365 days, Trump said so many things that would have stumbled or destroyed other candidates that we tend to forget them. Remember when he got in a fight with the pope? Trump got in a fight with the pope. Then he went on to win the Republican nomination.
We did our best to collect every comment offered by Trump that, for a normal candidate, might well have been deadly. In doing so, we developed a "how deadly this would be to normal candidates" scale, expressed in a measure we call a "Jeb." How many normal, milquetoast Republican candidates out of 10 would have been doomed by that thing Trump said? A 1-Jeb comment may have taken out an already-weak candidate, but would probably be survivable by most. A 10-Jebber? Impossible to survive — for a mere mortal.
And because this is science, we pulled Real Clear Politics's polling average data showing how Trump was faring in the Republican primary and in a general election matchup against Hillary Clinton in the week before and after each comment, allowing you to evaluate for yourself how much damage his words did.
Here's how that'll look:
So, buckle up. Marvel at the things Trump has gotten away with that another candidate would have had to spend weeks rebutting. If you're a candidate reading this at home: We cannot recommend the "say any old thing as frequently as possible" strategy for everyone.
1. Calls Mexican immigrants rapists
"The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. It's true. And these aren't the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists — and some, I assume, are good people."
Explaining the rating: The only reason this isn't a 10-Jeb comment is that Trump actually figured out a possible way to explain it: That he meant people sent by the Mexican government. As with many of his explanations, Trump's story changed depending on the audience.
2. Says John McCain isn't a hero
"He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured."
Explaining the rating: In a normal year, for a normal candidate, this would be staggering. Observers last year assumed it would be, too. But in the post-tea party Republican Party, it's conceivable that a non-Trump candidate might get away with this, if he or she apologized quickly. (Trump didn't.)
3. Refers to Megyn Kelly's menstruation
"You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off-base."
Explaining the rating: Trump again seized on the ambiguity of his comments to insist that he didn't mean the thing that he obviously actually did mean.
4. Insults Carly Fiorina's looks
"Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that — the face of our next president!?"
Explaining the rating: Under normal circumstances, this would require some walking back and a few press releases. The gender subtext made this trickier — especially once Fiorina offered her sharp rebuttal.
5. Says voters don't care about policy issues
On releasing policy papers: "Well, I think the press is more eager to see it than the voters, to be honest. I think the voters like me, they understand me, they know I'm going to do the job."
Explaining the rating: To be fair, they really don't. But you still don't generally say that.
6. Gets his military advice from news shows
CHUCK TODD: "Who do you talk to for military advice right now?"
TRUMP: "Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows ..."
Explaining the rating: Continuing a string of baffling comments, Trump set the stage for criticism of his lack of foreign policy chops by saying he got military advice from Sunday political shows. Another candidate would presumably be considered unserious by a broader section of the electorate.
7. Suggests 9/11 was George W. Bush's fault
"I think I’m much more competent than all of them. I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time."
Explaining the rating: This borders on the popular conspiracy theory that George W. Bush was involved in the 9/11 attacks, but for a Republican candidate, the bigger problem is disparaging the most recent Republican president. (Note: The Jeb metric here is misleading; had Jeb Bush said this of his brother, it would have been a 10-Jebber.)
8. Calls Iowa voters stupid
In reference to his doubts about Ben Carson's claim that Carson tried to stab someone in his youth: "How stupid are the people of Iowa?"
Explaining the rating: It's amazing he still came in second in the state, especially after his opponents ran this in ads before the caucuses.
9. Says Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11
"I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."
Explaining the rating: As was the case with several of these, Trump's insistence that he wasn't wrong ended up drawing out the debate over the topic. After a while, fact-checkers simply got tired of pointing out that there's no evidence of his claim.
10. Mocks a disabled reporter
"Written by a nice reporter — now the poor guy, you gotta see this guy. [gesticulates] 'Ahh, I don't know what I said! I don't remember!' He's going, 'I don't remember!'"
Explaining the rating: Just watch the video.
11. Says Muslim migration should be banned
"Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."
Explaining the rating: As it turns out, this proposal was not unpopular with his party. Trump repeatedly insisted it was only a temporary ban, and Republican primary voters were broadly supportive of the idea.
12. Doesn't know about the nuclear triad
"I think — I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me."
Explaining the rating: Most Americans probably weren't familiar with the three-part system for delivering nuclear payloads. But most Americans weren't participating in a Republican presidential debate. Moderator Hugh Hewitt had asked Trump which component was most important, eliciting the response above. When Hewitt turned to Marco Rubio, Rubio explained the topic.
But, again, most Americans don't know what it is either.
13. Encourages rally violence, part I
"They said, 'Mr. Trump, there may be someone with tomatoes in the audience.' So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay the legal fees."
Explaining the rating: When a person at a rally subsequently knocked the hell out of a protester, Trump flirted with making good on his promise to pay up.
14. Repeats a vulgar insult of Ted Cruz
On Ted Cruz: "She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out. [Audience member shouts.] Okay, you're not allowed to say, and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again! — she said: 'He's a pussy.' That's terrible."
Explaining the rating: Trump played this off as his simply repeating something he'd heard. Not a great excuse, but it might save another candidate who'd done the same thing.
15. Calls the pope "disgraceful"
"If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened. ... For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful."
Explaining the rating: It's the pope.
16. Encourages rally violence, part II
About a protester: "There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches; we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks."
Explaining the rating: Taking this outside of the context of the previous comments, it would still be sharply criticized as fomenting violence. With the previous incident in mind, the Jeb-rating probably goes up to a 10.
17. Threatens to unwind the First Amendment
"If I become president, oh, do they [the New York Times and The Washington Post] have problems. They're going to have such problems. And one of the things I'm going to do — and this is only going to make it tougher for me, and I've never said this before — but one of the things I'm gonna do if I win — and I hope I do, and we're certainly leading — is I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money."
Explaining the rating: Given how most people feel about the news media, this would probably be survivable for most candidates.
18. Declines to disavow racists
"I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. ... I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about."
Explaining the rating: Failing to categorically reject David Duke and racists is toward the front of the "What Not to Do in a Campaign" manual. But Trump shrugged.
19. Refers to a certain part of his anatomy
"He referred to my hands. If they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee."
Explaining the rating: I don't even know.
20. Dismisses his campaign manager's grabbing a reporter
"I don't think it ever happened because he was surrounded by Secret Service agents, many of them who were with me, and I didn't see anything happen. ... You have to check her out, just check her out."
Explaining the rating: The Trump campaign's response to accusations that his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had grabbed then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields was remarkable in its entirety. The candidate's first response was a flat-out denial. Asked about it after a debate, Trump tried to imply that Fields was the one who should be considered suspect. Surveillance footage later proved that she had been telling the truth.
21. Blames the Internet for an unfounded allegation he made
"All I know is what’s on the Internet."
Explaining the rating: I like to think that a presidential candidate who explains away misinformation by saying that he was just repeating something he'd seen online would meet with broad skepticism. But I'm not convinced that he would.
22. Declares that women who have illegal abortions should be punished
"The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment. There has to be some form.”
Explaining the rating: This response managed to annoy both sides of the abortion debate — a remarkable feat. For most candidates, that would be enough for him to be sworn off.
23. Accuses a judge of being motivated by race
On the judge who is hearing a case involving Trump University: "I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s doing this. ... The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican. ... I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump."
Explaining the rating: This occurred after Trump had survived all of the comments above and clinched the Republican nomination. After he made the comments, general election polls showed his numbers dropping. Even fellow Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, flat-out said the comment was racist.
In other words, this could actually be one of the factors that dooms Trump's campaign. And if you think that, I recommend you go back and re-read this article from the beginning.