The Gaffe Cycle Dominates the 2012 Campaign

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Ellen Dallager / The Ohio Art Company / AP

An Etch A Sketch portrait of President Elect Barack Obama was unveiled as the results of the presidential election were announced, Nov. 5, 2008.

In the 2012 campaign for president, the news cycle has been replaced by the gaffe cycle.

Back in the day, and even four years ago, certain signature events all but guaranteed a full 24-hours of political press coverage. Win a primary campaign, dominate a televised debate, announce a major endorsement or deliver a policy address, and a candidate would be rewarded. The newspapers would front the event in the morning, the talk-radio and cable news shows would discuss the event during the day, and the network news programs would wrap it all up at the end of the day. For big moments, the weekly magazines and weekend news roundups would keep it in the headlines.

But cable news and then the Internet long ago began to erode the traditional news cycle. Facebook and Twitter feeds, like CNN, never stop flowing. What is news one moment will be replaced the next. The only way to keep a story alive is to share it, twist it, react to it. The story is not the event, but the dialog that follows. And on this playing field—from which cable and radio news increasingly takes their cues–the predictable big events must compete with the unexpected small events. The small and the unexpected have been winning.

(LIST: The Top 10 Gaffes of 2011)

Think of what you remember of the last week: The fact that Romney won Illinois and Jeb Bush’s endorsement? Or the fact that Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom used an ill-advised “Etch-a-Sketch” metaphor in a CNN interview? The gaffe, unscripted and surprising, endured. It simply mattered more to the national conversation. Go back a few presidential cycles, and the reverse would be true. The mainstream journalists, as filters, would have discounted the gaffe as what it was: A poorly worded restatement of conventional wisdom. The media filter would have focused on the primary win and the endorsement as the events that mattered.

Now think about the event that defined Obama’s visit to the South Korea: Was it President Obama’s scripted visit to the DMZ? His speech on nuclear security? His comments about Kim Jong Un? Or the fact that a live mic caught the president promising “more flexibility” on missile defense to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev? Obviously it is the last one, despite the fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post buried the news deep inside today’s papers. The gaffe is still ringing around the world. The photos of Obama on the border with North Korea are a distant memory.

(LIST: The Top 10 Debate Flubs of All Time)

The political professionals who run the campaigns long ago adjusted to these new dynamics. They have built enormous operations that exist simply to respond to gaffes. It took just a few hours for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to go on stage with an Etch-a-Sketch after Fehrnstrom’s flub.

On March 19, Rick Santorum mis-delivered a line he has been using for months on the campaign trail in a way that allowed for an out-of-context soundbite: “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be,” he said. A few hours later, Romney responded at his own event, “I do care about the unemployment rate.” His campaign sent out press releases to reporters. More than a week later, the super PAC supporting Romney is still flogging the gaffe with a new ad.

Strategists at the Democratic National Committee have had remarkable success in their concerted effort to define Mitt Romney by his gaffes: “Corporations are people”; “I like being able to fire people”; “$10,000 bet?”; “I’m running for office for Pete’s sake”; “I’m also unemployed”; “eliminate Planned Parenthood”; “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners”; my wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs”; “The trees are the right height.” It goes on. The gaffes have, taken together, probably helped to define Romney among key independent voters far more than his own ads or speeches. They are what millions of Americans know about the candidate, even if they do a lousy job of actually describing the actual candidate Romney running for office. The DNC makes the gaffes last by putting them in YouTube spots, shooting them out in press releases, and filing talking points to the pundits who play anchors on MSNBC. The amateur and professional echo chambers take over.

(LIST: Mitt Romney’s Top 10 Gaffes of 2008)

In the same way, Romney is hoping to keep alive Obama’s clumsy comments to Medvedev. Just hours after it happened, Romney pounced, declaring it, with the false outrage that politicians peddle as a matter of course, “an alarming and troubling development.” He said later in the day that he would fight the media’s attempt to move on from the gaffe. “We’re going to keep it alive and awake,” he told a radio show. On Tuesday morning, his campaign released an open letter to the President asking for clarification about just how much Obama was deceiving the American people.

The reaction by the Obama campaign shows that the strategists in Chicago understand that those who live by the gaffe can also die at its hands. Almost as soon as Obama had uttered his words, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee went on offense against Romney’s own foreign policy plans. A bevy of surrogates—Wesley Clark, Rep. Timothy Roemer and Richard Danzig—were deployed to counter message the gaffe. They tried to create a new gaffe out of Romney’s claim that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States. “What’s Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy Agenda?” blared a counter-narrative press release distributed by campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Of course, gaffes are not a new campaign artifact. George W. Bush exploited John Kerry’s verbal miscues in the 2004 campaign. George H.W. Bush made Michael Dukakis pay for his silly ride in an M-1 tank. Howard Dean’s election night scream into an Iowa microphone helped pop the bubble of his campaign. Sarah Palin never quite recovered from her declaration that “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.”

But never before have gaffes, which can be defined as soundbites or clips that can be used to drive negative perceptions, been the primary currency of campaign coverage and communication. Online they drive the conversation, as sharable atoms of partisan passions. In the mainstream media, they now often lead news coverage where they once would have been relegated to sidebars.

The problem with all of this is that gaffes are often weak signifiers of what is really happening. They are, more often then not, taken out of context to exaggerate qualities or positions. As voters and reporters increasingly revert to them for information about what is going on in the campaign, there is a risk that the sort of substantive differences between the candidates get lost in the shuffle. But until news gathering and consumption changes again, there is probably nothing to be done.

Campaigns have always been story-telling enterprises, and we like our political stories simple and short. A white paper doesn’t retweet well. Watching an entire televised debate borders on insufferable. So we turn to shorthand, to symbols and synecdoches–the part of a thing that represents the whole. Until the technology of communication adjusts, the gaffe will continue to dominate.