Politicians' Gaffes Don't Hurt Them

Controversy over gaffes goes away, and almost always leaves no trace.

Forget I said that.

Photographer Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Matt Yglesias looks at the two-day ruckus about President Barack Obama’s botched description of the murders in a French Kosher supermarket -- the president called the killings of four Jews "random." Yglesias concludes that this is why we can’t have interesting politicians. They learn, over and over again, that "unscripted moments are dangerous and generally to be avoided."

The media will bemoan lack of access and robotic, scripted answers. But it will also punish deviations from the script. And it will do so in the most trivial ways. No minds were changed during Randomgate and nobody learned anything. A couple of spokespeople had a bad afternoon. Some websites (including this one) got some extra pageviews. And every politician learned to be that much more boring in the future.

He is correct, but that's only because most politicians, in most situations, learn the wrong lesson from these episodes.

The real story isn’t that politicians who flub interviews are punished by bad publicity and have to walk back their remarks. The real story comes later: The controversy goes away, and almost always leaves no trace.

Mitt Romney, as Yglesias reminds us, committed a gaffe when he said that “corporations are people.” But it didn't cost him the 2012 election. Nor did his “47 percent” comments. Likewise, Obama wasn't hurt by his "you didn't build that" comment about business. His awful performance in the first debate that year didn’t hurt him either. 

This stuff has only a marginal effect if any on general elections. Or on the approval ratings of incumbent presidents. At best, gaffes might matter significantly in wide-open primary elections, when voters (and even more sophisticated party actors) have little reason to favor one candidate over another and have to choose.

Yet even though the risks turn out to be negligible, politicians are paranoid and risk-averse. And after all, even if nothing is lost after a gaffe, there’s not much to be gained by free-wheeling interviews, so it isn't as if the cost-benefit calculation is completely nuts.

So, candidates, if it’s two weeks before the Iowa caucuses or a contested state primary election, stick to your talking points at all costs. The rest of the time? Try talking like a human being. The risks are a lot smaller than you think.

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