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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Campaign Gaffes That Big a Deal?

Commenting on all of the Hoo Ha surrounding President Obama’s recent remarks about the private sector doing fine, Brendan Nyan’s post “Do campaign gaffes matter? Not to voters” at the Columbia Journalism Review makes a few excellent points, including:

…Journalists routinely promote the importance of these sorts of pseudo-controversies, even though there is little convincing evidence that gaffes affect presidential election outcomes…there is no evidence that the president has been damaged by the incident thus far. As Emory’s Alan Abramowitz pointed out by email, Obama’s job approval and trial heat numbers against Romney have not declined since the press conference…
…When we compare Obama’s approval from the three days before the “doing fine” statement to the three days afterward, we see that the proportion of Americans who approve of the job he is doing actually increases from 46% to 49%. Without further calculations, it’s not clear whether such a change is statistically significant given the margin of error on the polls, but the result is certainly inconsistent with the notion that the president has been hurt by the statement.

And it’s not about President Obama having Reaganesque teflon. It’s more that negative ads don’t seem to have much lasting impact, as Nyhan explains:

…Negative ads are indeed the most likely way that Republicans might try to make the quote salient in the fall. The problem, however, is that evidence for the effectiveness of negative ads is quite limited. The best experimental evidence suggests that the effects of television advertising decay quickly. Moreover, as Georgetown University political scientist Jonathan Ladd pointed out on Twitter, the relevant question is whether ads (or speeches or commentary) that exploit gaffes are more persuasive than the material Republicans would otherwise have used. How much will it matter if a Romney ad quotes the “doing fine” statement or, say, criticizes the stimulus or healthcare reform instead?

Same seems to go for presidential candidate gaffes, says Nyhan:

One way to evaluate the claim that gaffes affect election outcomes is by considering recent history. Indeed, Cillizza cites two examples as evidence in his most recent piece (the second was also cited by Tumulty): John Kerry’s March 2004 statement that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it,” and John McCain’s statement, in the early stages of the financial crisis in September 2008, that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” However, it’s not at all clear that the statements in question were the reason that the campaigns turned out as they did, rather than the winning candidates’ underlying advantages in the campaign fundamentals. Both George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 performed approximately as well as election forecasting models expected, which suggests that these campaign events had limited influence.
Moreover, the effect of gaffes is not always clear even when they take place in high-profile presidential debates. As UNC political scientist James Stimson points out in his book Tides of Consent, Gerald Ford actually gained ground on Jimmy Carter after a widely-criticized gaffe in which he falsely said Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union during a 1976 debate.

Nyhan argues “the biggest reason that gaffes are perpetually hyped by the media in the absence of evidence that they matter to voters–is that, despite all the cutbacks in journalism, too many reporters are chasing too few stories at this point in the presidential campaign…”
In concluding, Nyhan asks an excellent question: “Why not devote more resources to investigations, enterprise stories, and down-ballot races, and reduce the number of reporters covering the minutiae of the presidential campaign? We, the readers, will be just fine without them.” Amen.

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