When Vice President Joe Biden embraced President Barack Obama at a White House signing ceremony for landmark health reforms in March 2010 and whispered, “This is a big fucking deal,” the comment was meant to be private.
The microphone at the podium, however, was hot. The remark went quickly viral, making it one of the most popular political gaffes of the last couple of years.
Plenty of other political figures have fucked up since then. And in case we ever forget, YouTube is there to remind us. But do these gaffes really change the outcome of political elections? Do they ruin political careers? Or do voters forget about them after they’ve run their course on FoxNews and CNN?
Elon University political science professor Matthew Weidenfeld said the media assume, in the moment, that political gaffes can make or break a campaign. But then the attention given to them fades after a while. “Political scientists who have done quick-opinion polling on [gaffes] have found generally fewer people know about these things than we would think,” he said.
(Watch this video we made downtown outside the Democratic National Convention: Do you know which politicians made these completely incorrect, sometimes idiotic statements?)
The people who already know about political gaffes are probably the high-information voters, Weidenfeld added. And since these voters are usually partisans, the impact of the gaffes isn’t all that great. “I don’t know if it resonates or makes that big of a deal with the electorate,” he said. “If it gets out widely enough, it’s going to have an impact.”
Democratic National Convention-goers in Charlotte this month agree that gaffes can be harmful or harmless depending on how frequently they occur.
Jonathan D. Gramling, publisher and editor of The Capital City Hues biweekly news magazine in Madison, Wis., thinks that by themselves, political gaffes don’t matter. But if a politician consistently makes mix-ups, it could be a red flag.
“People forget about them after a day or two days because the news cycles are so quick,” he said. “But if it’s a recurring pattern, it starts to create general impressions of a person, and then they do have an impact, and they should.”
Like Gramling, Georgette Wilson, from Alexandria, Va., thinks gaffes matter if they are consistent across the board. “If they are consistently making a mistake over and over again, then I think maybe you need to give it some thought,” she said.
Remember when President George W. Bush was unable to name major world leaders when put on the spot to do so? That was a gaffe that definitely made the headlines.
“But did that affect his ability to govern and put together a cabinet?” Weidenfeld asked. “No.”
Mary Hardvall from Polk County in North Carolina argued that gaffes should get attention if they mean something. “There are mistakes that people make,” she said. “But the bottom line is when something is in somebody’s heart and their soul and their whole being, they’re game-changers.”
Big fucking deal or not, these political gaffes have grown to be a popular source of entertainment. And, if history has taught us anything, it's that no politician is safe.