How Much Do Gaffes Actually Damage a Candidate?

We all know them. Slips of the tongue we wish we could take back. For candidates, gaffes are their worst nightmare. They capture the news cycle and distract campaigns, and have been damaging to both President Obama and Governor Romney this election season. Malapropisms and other oratory mistakes have played a large role in non-Presidential contests, though, as well. In particular, they may help decide the composition of the Senate, which will be particularly important to the ability of either Obama or Romney to govern in the next four years.

As in every election cycle, roughly a third of the Senate is up for reelection in November. However, many predicted this was the Republicans’ race to lose. 23 Democrats (including two senators who caucus with them) would have to stand for reelection while only 10 Republicans face the same challenge. This is further complicated by the fact that seven Democrats compared to just three Republicans are retiring or vacating their seats. To an objective observer, this would seem like a tough year for the liberals. However, many see a strong chance of the Party maintaining their majority on Election Day. Part of this is due to a slowly improving economy, but candidates’ gaffes have more recently been nudging the upper house blue.

A good example of this is Senator George Allen’s remarks at a campaign event in rural Virginia during the 2006 race. Allen’s reelection seemed likely until he referred to a staffer of his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, with a racially charged epithet. A former Governor, Congressman, and Delegate to Virginia’s Legislature, Allen was no stranger to Virginians. To many, his reelection in 2006 was par for the course. All until he called S. R. Sidarth, the “tracker” who filmed Allen’s public appearances for the Webb campaign, as a “macaca.” In a campaign stop near the Kentucky border, Allen referred to Sidarth, an Indian-American born and raised in Virginia, twice like this, saying:

“This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent… let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

This ten-second moment was the decisive point of the campaign. The video quickly went viral and in November, now-Senator Webb won by a third of a percent, around 9,000 votes out of about 2.3 million cast. Was Allen being overtly racist? That’s not certain. In the video, he pauses briefly before saying the word and doesn’t appear overly condescending. If anything, he seems to just be making his point that Webb isn’t interested in rural Virginians’ needs. However, the transcript of the encounter speaks for itself. Virtually from then on, Allen’s campaign was sinking. It is still an issue in the 2012 contest, where Allen is running for his old seat, and may push Democrat Tim Kaine, who’s currently ahead in the polls, to victory in November.

A similar example is the more recent comments of Senate candidate Todd Akin on rape in Missouri. When asked during an interview to explain why he opposes abortion even when the pregnancy is the result of rape, he said:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

I’m still left wondering what a “legitimate rape” really is, but regardless, Akin is espousing a fairly reasonable conservative viewpoint: even in cases of rape, the punishment should be on the rapist, not the child. That’s what he meant, but not what he said; again the transcript speaks for itself. Reading it, Akin seems aloof about the emotional and physical trauma rape causes. Prior to his comments, it looked like incumbent Senator Clair McCaskill would lose her seat. Now, she has raised tens of millions of dollars and has a 2.3-point lead over Akin, according to the most recent polling at RealClearPolitics. Another reasonably safe Republican seat lost.

I’ve highlighted only two races here, but the balance of the Senate may very well rest on just a couple of seats. This will have a huge impact on the country – regardless of who is elected president. It is interesting to note that just a word or sentence can so quickly doom politicians. In most cases, candidates had a horribly communicated, but innocuous intent. We don’t give candidates any wiggle room when interviewing for their jobs – and nor should we. But we must also remember that this forces candidates to actively hide what they may truly believe. They read the polls, know the trends, and understand what the majority of voters want. We shouldn’t act so surprised then when what they’re really thinking comes out.