When Political Gaffes Matter

Ed Kilgore has a nice item about the Georgia Senate race:

In the endless argument between political scientists and “traditional” political people about how elections are decided, I’m with the Poli Sci crowd more often than not, and don’t much believe individual “moments” in campaigns usually matter all that much. But there are obviously exceptions; nobody really thinks Todd Akin was done in by “fundamentals” in 2012.

No disagreement from this political scientist.

Here’s the deal: The more information is out there, the less any particular news item will matter. Make sense?

So in presidential general elections, gaffes extremely seldom move voters. That’s even more likely to be the case when an incumbent is on the ballot. After almost four years of Barack Obama in the White House, even low-information voters had plenty to go on in deciding whether they wanted him to be president for another four years. Some events could have changed their view, but a gaffe probably wouldn’t.

Senate campaigns are different, however. For one thing, they don’t generate as much information as presidential elections. And with less other information available, a voter in a Senate contest might give more weight to a gaffe, an event or a bit of opposition research packaged in a TV ad.

For most voters, the single most important information about candidates is party affiliation, and it takes quite a bit for that to be displaced by any other consideration. An unfortunate comment six months before the election, when few voters and even fewer swing voters are paying attention, won’t be enough to change perceptions in most cases. Still, in this highly charged political context, an insipid comment could be repeated widely enough to reach those swing voters and make a significant difference.

Note, however, that gaffes can also work indirectly. That was surely the case with Akin and his comments about “legitimate rape.” Many Republican elites rushed to distance themselves from him, providing a powerful signal that he was a pariah. (That signal was undoubtedly magnified by the media, which feels it can still be objective when turning on a candidate who is being denounced by his own party.) I’m not aware of any study of these effects in the Akin case, but I’m certain that there’s more to the story than just voters hearing what he said and deciding to vote against him.

Senate general elections occupy a middle ground in U.S. politics: even though they aren’t subject to the saturation coverage of presidential elections, there can be sufficient news media coverage and advertising for campaign events to make a fairly large difference.1

The general point is that political scientists don’t think all elections turn primarily on fixed, pre-campaign fundamentals; the political context is everything. Not all elections are alike. A gaffe in an otherwise very close Senate election could matter, though it has a lot more impact if opinion leaders in the errant candidate’s own party denounce him.

1 In House elections and many other downballot contests, campaigns can make a huge difference because in many cases the incumbent has a campaign, and the challenger doesn’t.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.