Debate Gaffes Provide a Window into a Candidate’s Thinking
Richard O’Dor, East Carolina University
Gallup reports that only two debates have had a substantial impact on voters, the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960 and Gore/Bush in 2000. The winner became the front-runner. The media and political campaigns have drastically changed since these debates. In the past, gaffes were merely perceived as errors, not insights into how the candidate thinks. This perception is changing. Gaffes are beginning to be seen as insights into how a candidate really makes decisions. A gaffe allows the candidate’s thinking to become transparent, undermining the carefully crafted image of the political campaign.
Give credit to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “Oops” at the Republican presidential candidates’ Rochester debate in November 2011. Perry could not remember the third branch of government he would eliminate. He stumbled for several moments. Responding to the moderator’s inquiry about the third agency’s identity, Perry said, “I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” Unlike any previous gaffe, “Oops” signaled a change. It was the first time that a candidate openly expressed that an unscripted error was a mistake. “Oops” was the perfect word. It was such a pithy admission of an error following his long stumble that it was difficult to overlook its weight. The impact of this insight was also measured in the post-gaffe polls that followed. Perry dropped significantly in the polls.
New media, the 24-hour news cycle, and changes in mobile communication provide many opportunities for gaffes. One such occasion for Obama was his statement that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.” This statement counteracts the message of change that characterized his 2008 campaign. Romney’s most significant gaffe came from a released video capturing him stating that 47% of the American people "believe they are victims" and that they "pay no taxes.” His dismissal of nearly half the nation plays into the image of Romney as snobbish and uncaring. The hidden camera’s footage exposed a reality that overshadowed the millions of dollars spent to create a different view of Romney. Gaffes that reinforce a stereotype of a politician are extremely difficult to shake off.
The default response anymore to a gaffe is that the candidate didn’t choose the right words. They were inelegant. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, used this strategy to respond to criticism of his comments on “legitimate rape” and how a woman’s body works. Akin quickly shifted his strategy to move attention away from the gaffe by portraying himself as a victim bullied by the Republican Party for not dropping out of the race. Likewise, Romney did not deny his message regarding the 47%, but instead ultimately blamed the delivery as inarticulate. A candidate’s self-deprecating statements reinforce the perception that his or her decision making is questionable. Recurring “Oops” moments bolster the negative image the candidate wants to avoid.
Moments of unscripted thinking reveal the candidate’s authentic decision making. It’s also reflected in their behavior during these moments. A politician’s words, emotional tone, eye gaze, and gestures are interconnected neurologically as communicative actions. During the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Ford’s statement that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” provided insights into how he saw the world. Anyone watching the footage of this debate can tell from his facial expressions, eye gaze, posturing, and vocal tone that he meant what he had said. Al Gore’s heavy breathing and sighing in the 2000 debate undercut his ability to connect with the audience. In 2004, George W. Bush’s unscripted moment occurred when he described his awareness of the cost of war by stating “I see on the TV screens how hard it is.” In that moment, the public learned that the Commander-in-Chief gets his intelligence about the Iraq War from watching TV rather than from the best military intelligence available.
Gaffes are so powerful that political campaigns creatively edit opponent’s statements to manufacture gaffes. Obama’s focus on success as “do[ing] things together” was undercut by editing his message to the first sentence, “If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.” The entire political message was, “If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” Obama’s first sentence in this statement was not a moment of an unstructured script, but it became one.
For a substantial amount of voters, gaffes will not alter their voting behavior. Republicans, Democrats, and most Independents selectively listen to information that reinforces their political views and reinterpret information that doesn’t. However, the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates are unlike any previous clashes. Social media has created more opportunities for non-professionals to become the press, sharing these moments with others and eventually the professional press.
A theme that branded Romney throughout the Republican primary debates was that he was boring. This stereotype is a weakness that Romney must overcome in his responses during the presidential debates. If he doesn’t, the polls may not shift, and Republican voter turnout could be lower. In order for Romney to be perceived the winner, he needs to be more emotional without being creepy. The smiles at the end of statements and the chuckles need to be controlled. For Obama, his aversion to direct clash will be a weakness. Similarly, the debate is not an instructional moment. In order to be perceived the winner, he needs to echo Clinton’s simple explanation of the administration’s achievements.
Ultimately, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter will influence reactions to the upcoming debates and their gaffes. The candidates’ specific messages, and even the subsequent spin by political pundits, may not offset what the gaffes reveal about the candidate’s thinking.
Richard is the director of East Carolina University College of Business Communication Center. He has provided commentary on the presidential debates to the national networks for the last four presidential elections. Prior to ECU, Richard has served as Director of Communication for Her Highness and consultant to the Emir of the State of Qatar and coached debate at Duke University for 18 years.
Business Communication Center:
The Business Communication Center coaches ECU students in communication skills (writing/presenting) and provides support as they prepare for their careers. The Center’s services include individual and small group consultations, monthly workshops, faculty partnerships, and online resources and tutorials. BCC’s website is www.ecu.edu/business/bcc. If you have any questions, please contact the director, Richard O’Dor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.