To that end, some mistakes reveal a lot about a person’s character and the character of those voters who mark their ballots to support them. After all, we just lived through an election where 74 million people voted for someone with a vast history of awful behavior. There were people who watched that man say things that were demonstrably untrue, defied all logic, and either inspired giggles or shaking heads. And still people—tens of millions of people—viewed it all and said: “He’s the guy I want!” There have been all sorts of rationalizations for this, from excuses that labeled every bit of negative coverage as “fake news” to an embrace of the absurd as a pseudo virtue—a stance that defended stupidity as “telling it like it is.” That one-term president is proof that to a significant chunk of voters, the mistakes don’t matter. Truth and facts don’t matter. Instead, reality is skewed by which team a given situation benefits; for some, errors are considered proof of how much someone is “fighting” everything that’s supposedly wrong with America.
A spate of recent incidents brings up a larger question of whether gaffes and blunders are as career-ending as they once seemed, especially in a culture where white nationalists have cable TV shows and insurrections are openly embraced by public figures.
Consider February’s debacle of Sen. Ted Cruz’s jaunt to a Cancun resort while his Texas constituents were left without power or water during a snowstorm. Cruz booked a hasty return once the trip hit the news, but the story, along with leaked text messages from Cruz’s wife, seemed to verify every negative opinion of Cruz long held by his many critics, including some Republicans. To them, it was just another example of how Cruz is a “miserable son of a bitch” who only thinks of himself. Cruz’s attempts to do damage control became fodder for late-night shows while Texans picked up the pieces and energy providers attempted to price-gouge them.
The question, of course, is whether it’ll make a difference to Cruz’s political prospects. Will people care about this very public lapse in judgment by 2024? Did Cruz voters see this and change their minds about him? Or does none of this matter, because Cruz’s base will find a way to rationalize his misdeeds?
Not all mistakes are created equal, of course, and what ultimately ends up defining or ending a career is extremely subjective. Some misdeeds waved off as mere gaffes are serious offenses, wrongly dismissed as a “joke.” Sometimes a supremely unfair mountain is made out of a merely cringeworthy molehill. The way the media responds matters just as much as how the politicians do, if not more.
The errors themselves usually span the entire spectrum from serious malice or rank stupidity to just plain bad luck. Sometimes there’s embarrassment and shame, and sometimes not. For someone like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who seems to offend every other day, one could argue her entire public persona is built on turning into the skid of her gaffes, embracing them as bonafides to the nuts in the Republican base. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom is now contemplating how to survive a recall after backlash to lockdowns in California coupled with a very bad decision to have dinner at a restaurant even as he was telling his constituents to stay home.
The following are a sampling of major missteps in recent political history. It would take the better part of forever to create an exhaustive list, but all of the examples below are ones where the mistake was used by the media to comment on a person’s character, temperament, and judgment. Some of the commentary may have been fair … and some of the outcomes might have not been.
Al Gore: The internet, 1999
Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore never claimed he “invented the internet,” or even came close to implying it. The notion became a favored talking point of pundits during the 2000 presidential election after a March 1999 interview Gore gave to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer before Gore had even entered the race. During the interview, Gore was asked to distinguish his record from his rival in the upcoming Democratic presidential primary, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Gore stated he “took the initiative in creating the internet” as well as other legislative matters while in Congress. In context, the statement was about fostering the internet’s development through government support, not Gore himself sitting at a computer typing code.
However, neither context nor defenses from some information technology pioneers who cited Gore’s advocacy as important would stop a massive amount of ridicule being dumped on the former vice president during his presidential run. Also, the internet claim was used as part of a media narrative during the 2000 general campaign that painted Gore as less than credible.
Howard Dean: The “Dean Scream,” 2004
Going into the 2004 primary cycle, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s candidacy seemed ascendant. Dean had been the frontrunner of the Democratic primary field for most of 2003, was strong in both state and national polling, doing well in fundraising, drawing big crowds at events, and had a huge following online. However, the wheels began to come off after Dean finished a disappointing third place in the Iowa Caucus.
During a fiery election night speech where Dean vowed to fight on across every state of the country, he let out a loud scream to excite the crowd.
The “Dean Scream” instantly became fodder for comedians and late-night talk shows. The pundit class called Dean’s performance unpresidential, and played it almost nonstop. Dean’s polling lead in New Hampshire evaporated overnight, leading to a 12-point loss to John Kerry. Thirty days after the scream in Iowa had become a meme before we had a word for it, Dean suspended his campaign.
George W. Bush: “Mission Accomplished,” 2003, and Hurricane Katrina, 2005
If one looks at the political strength of George W. Bush, it peaked after Sept. 11, 2001, when the country rallied to him in the hope he might actually be a leader. Bush’s approval ratings—which hit a baffling 90% two weeks after the terrorist attack —permanently sank below 45% after his handling of Hurricane Katrina. However, in between those two events, there was something else that happened that has become one of the defining political gaffes of the Bush presidency.
The Iraq War, and the weaponizing of national security to a political end from Patriot Acts, or turning Gitmo into a dungeon, all the way to questioning the patriotism of Democratic candidates like Sen. Max Cleland (who left two legs in Vietnam for his country) had already shattered whatever solidarity existed among Democrats and Republicans in the wake of 9/11. The legacy of the “Mission Accomplished” speech, and the entire spectacle of Bush in a flight suit landing on an aircraft carrier, becomes even more chilling when it’s juxtaposed against the continuing deaths and disorder coming out of Iraq in the latter days of the Bush administration.
Arguably, the turning point in George W. Bush’s presidency—at least in its ability to claim the trust of a majority of the public—was Hurricane Katrina. The appearance of a president diddling around on vacation while a major American city was under water, over 1,800 people were dying, and millions were homeless along the Gulf Coast seemed to be the straw that broke the back for many voters. It didn’t help that when Bush eventually began to get involved, one of his first soundbites was to tell his FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was working at horse shows before being put in charge of emergency management, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Research done 12 years after Hurricane Katrina found a significant part of Gulf Coast residents still experienced post-traumatic stress symptoms from the incident.
John McCain and Sarah Palin: The financial crisis and that Katie Couric interview, 2008
There is an argument that given the state of the country, George W. Bush’s job approval numbers, and the aftereffects of the Iraq War, the 2008 election was destined to be a Democratic year. However, John McCain kept things close in the polls for most of 2008, often outperforming the Republican brand. In fact, at one point McCain held a very small lead in most national polls.
The race was pretty close up until the middle of September, when Barack Obama took a polling lead he would never relinquish. What happened in the middle of September? The stock market and financial services industry went south. It’s also around the time people who had 401(k) accounts and investments got statements showing their dwindling nest eggs. This had the effect of putting the economy as the No. 1 issue in the election.
And with the economy going in the shitter, John McCain decided to tell people to believe him, not their lying eyes.
This statement, when coupled with the stunt of “suspending” his campaign and attempting to postpone the first presidential debate in order to fly back to Washington and deal with an economy that he had just called fundamentally sound, contributed to doubts about McCain’s temperament, as well as his ability to deal with a financial crisis.
And if that wasn’t enough, voter confidence in John McCain’s running mate was dropping like a stone. If one looks at 2008 exit polls, the American public was not impressed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: About 60% of voters believed she was unqualified to be president of the United States. Even still, there were a few weeks in 2008 where Palin seemed to offer some wind to McCain’s sails. Her performance at the GOP convention, as well as early outings on the campaign trail, seemed to bring conservatives home and give McCain a lead in most polls. All of it collapsed after a gruesome twosome where McCain botched his response to the financial crisis and Palin gave disastrous answers when questioned by the media.
The McCain campaign wouldn’t let Palin get near a reporter’s microphone for weeks after she was selected. As the media continued to press for access, the McCain campaign ultimately decided to allow a limited number of interviews after trying to prep her and cramming her head full of briefing books. The first interview was with ABC News and Charlie Gibson, where Palin was totally out of her depth, talking about energy independence when asked about her national security credentials and sort of threatening World War III with Russia.
However, the pièce de résistance was the absolutely disastrous interview with Katie Couric for CBS News. Palin just seemed out of her league on every level. Palin couldn’t name a newspaper or magazine she had read (or make one up). And her answers were the basis for some of the first skits on Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey. It’s bad when SNL uses the transcript of the interview … word for word.
As the public would later find out, the McCain-Palin campaign was an absolute mess behind the scenes. The mistakes that defined the campaign arguably spoke to problems of judgment, whether it was McCain’s inability to deal with the economic crisis and to pick a competent running mate, or for Sarah Palin to grow into the opportunity given to her. But it also presaged the slide of the mainstream GOP members towards embracing the kooks in a search for votes.
Donald Trump: The Access Hollywood tape, 2016
Audio of Donald Trump bragging about what was tantamount to sexual assault surfaced two days before the second presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle. The behind-the-scenes footage, captured during a press event with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, featured Trump boasting about his sexual advances to women: Trump claimed that when “you’re a star” like himself, women “let you do anything.” The footage also included Trump’s assertion that he could “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Reactions to the tape’s existence were overwhelmingly negative from most of the public, but condemnation was not universal, and far more measured from Republican officials. Early speculation that this might be an “October Surprise” that would lead to Trump’s withdrawal from the campaign was dashed quickly as a two-prong defense—deflection and rationalization—was employed by the Trump campaign. The tape was dismissed by Trump partisans as “locker room talk,” implying it was just two totally normal dudes boasting about sexual conquests. When that didn’t work, Trump fell back on whataboutism, arguing that others, including Hillary and Bill Clinton, had done or excused worse.
While Trump did go on to barely win the election against Hillary Clinton, an academic study of the tape’s effect on the 2016 race does claim the incident diminished Trump’s support. However, former campaign officials like Steve Bannon—who advised Donald Trump to “double down”—believe American voters “don’t care” about it and had “no lasting impact.”
In the runup to the 2020 election, there were various think pieces written with concern about a Joe Biden candidacy, citing his history of gaffes. However, even beyond the above examples, several analyses of the effect of gaffes in campaigns tend to believe such stumbles’ ability to move the needle with the public is overstated. Nate Silver’s reading of polling found that Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments during the 2012 campaign may have only moved 1% of voters towards President Barack Obama. According to Silver, the focus on mistakes and gaffes is fueled by the news media, which needs something exciting for its stories, especially when covering campaigns and feeding a constant need for content. For example, one of the most replayed clips of a presidential candidate making a mistake in a debate is that of Gerald Ford stating there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in the 1976 campaign. Ford’s flub is usually positioned in service of the public image of Ford as a dumb lightweight who was not up to being president; combined with the debate mistake, it may have been crucial in his defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. However, Ford actually gained in the polls after that debate.
Furthermore, it’s been asserted that if a focus on gaffes serves any useful purpose for the opposition, it helps confirm negative attitudes about a person among the people already predisposed to dislike them, and charges up the opponent’s base to help their turnout rather than converting one’s own voters to change their minds. So while Hillary Clinton calling Trump voters a “basket of deplorables” is hyped by media pundits as a reason Clinton didn’t do well in the Rust Belt back in 2016, it’s more likely that the people who are offended by such a thing were probably never going to vote for her anyway. Amid the 2012 campaign, President Obama stated during a press conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” The media decided Obama had made a major gaffe that was a “gift” to the Republicans. Despite all the hyperventilating by pundits, Obama’s comment barely affected his job approval numbers.
But is it really accurate to say that gaffes don’t matter?
We, as voters, define candidates not only by where they stand on issues, but by the images and words we believe reveal something about their inner character. What we focus on is also based on our own biases, whether those moments are arguably relevant or not. Moreover, in the present environment, where the response to negative coverage, at least among a significant chunk of the electorate, is to scream “fake news,” a gaffe’s power to drive voters to the polls is more an exercise in stoking one’s own side to action than a path to conversion of new supporters.
I would argue the full impact of these blunder stories is not easily understood, and there are indirect effects that are not considered when a full-blown media focus on a screw-up occurs. The biggest problem is how much time and focus gets wasted away. Want to talk about health care? Want to discuss the pandemic response? Too bad, because the next couple of days are going to be spent doing damage control. Once the press frenzy dies down it’s not over, since every new story gets filtered through the new narrative.
Does anyone really believe Ted Cruz will ever be taken seriously talking about bipartisanship or the importance of government services providing support to citizens? When Cruz addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in late February, he did so at a time where less than half of Texas Republicans viewed Cruz favorably and his job approval numbers had slipped underwater with all voters. Every time he runs for anything in the future, the video of him looking like a schlub with a suitcase in a Mexican airport will be run, and run again. Such gaffes may not be the main reason candidates lose or careers are destroyed, but they do explain how some of the oxygen of policy debates gets sucked from the room. Yet at CPAC, Cruz took the Bannon approach: He doubled down and didn’t apologize or address the fiasco—other than to make a bad joke of it. Instead, Cruz leaned on a laundry list of boogeymen and fearmongering, from the supposed tyranny of mask mandates to minimizing the insurrection at the Capitol.
The sad truth is that Cruz, Taylor Greene, and all Republicans know that while gaffes, mistakes, and errors might animate Democrats, the same people who censured officials for not showing enough support to Donald Trump don’t want apologies, or the sort of moments that satiate media pundits. They want defiance, and reward their officials for going against the norms. But those same voters will raise holy hell and get motivated into getting signatures for a recall in California over pictures of the governor making a selfish mistake. To that base, a stumble on a staircase leading to Air Force One becomes a point of obsession that proves every right-wingbacked armchair non-doctor’s conspiracy theories about Joe Biden’s fitness. Gaffes matter to those voters, but only the ones they think should matter. Therefore, the ability for a gaffe or mistake to ever convert a Republican voter to change their view of a candidate or official is limited. The only ones we can probably hold out hope for are those with an open mind.
Gaffes, of course, have tremendous power to shape both popular culture and our memories, lingering long after a campaign is over. Which political gaffes, blunders, and mistakes have stuck with you?