Huffpost Politics

Gaffes Add Cynicism To The 2012 Campaign: Analysis

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GAFFES ETCH A SKETCH
Supporter of former Pennsylvania Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Alex Strahan, of Hattiesburg, Miss., displays an Etch A Sketch drawing instrument at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in Metairie, La., Friday, March 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) | AP

WASHINGTON -- After a week like this, is it any wonder voters are cynical?

Within five days of each other, both the president and the campaign of his leading Republican opponent have had to deal with their own "oops" moments of candor.

President Barack Obama was caught on an open mic telling Russia's president that his dealings with the country on missile defense may be different after the elections, raising the specter of a hidden agenda.

A few days earlier, Mitt Romney's top aide suggested his boss's primary-season positions may shift in the fall campaign, altered as easily as erasing an Etch A Sketch.

Both campaigns tried to explain away the significance of the statements on their own side, while exploiting the missteps on the other side

The net result is just another reason for voters not to trust what they're hearing from the presidential candidates, and to wonder how they'd truly govern in 2013 and beyond.

Distrust among voters already was so strong that it's hard to get worse.

"The level of voter cynicism about the way politicking happens is pretty high, and so it takes a lot to meaningfully move the needle," said pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. He added that the latest episodes "will certainly play a reinforcing role" for doubting voters.

Romney can at least take solace in the fact that most voters missed his aide's Etch A Sketch comments altogether.

Just 44 percent of voters said they'd heard about the remarks, according to Pew results released this week. And only 11 percent said it made them less likely to support Romney.

But plenty of voters already had doubts about Romney's convictions, and is GOP opponents have been more than happy to have a catchy new, red visual aid to wave around as they offer themselves as more solid conservatives.

"I have not written my public policy pronouncements on an Etch A Sketch," Rick Santorum promised while campaigning in next-to-vote Wisconsin. "They are written on my heart."

"I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going," said Newt Gingrich, campaigning in Louisiana before the weekend vote there.

Romney has tried to reassure voters that "the issues I'm running on will be exactly the same" in the future – consistently conservative all the way.

But Jeffrey Goldfarb, a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York who has written a book about cynicism and politics, said the remarks by Romney's aide so neatly fit with what voters already know about the candidate's shifting stances that it's likely "people will understand and accept or reject him, knowing that's who he is."

"Moderate Republicans have been praying all along that Romney is not who he's pretending to be during the primaries," Goldfarb added.

Obama, for his part, tried to laugh off his open-mic remark as simply a restatement of the obvious – that it's hard to get things done during a campaign year and he'll have more flexibility once the elections are past.

"This not a matter of hiding the ball," he insisted, after jokingly covering up his microphone.

Republicans weren't ready to make light of the matter.

Romney said it was "very alarming for the president of the United States to suggest to Russia that he has a different agenda that he's going to work out with the Russians after the elections."

It's not the first time Obama has run into trouble for candid comments meant to remain private.

In 2008, his presidential campaign caught grief when word leaked out about a memo in which one of his senior economic advisers suggested to the Canadians that Obama's harsh words about the North American Free Trade Agreement had merely been for political show.

Obama's Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said his campaign had given the Canadians "the old wink-wink."

Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York, said voters may not get too worked up about either of the latest episodes because people are beyond cynicism by now.

"They have moved on to resignation," Renshon said. "And the difference is that cynicism makes you angry; resignation makes you depressed."

Between campaign gaffes, gridlock in Congress and disappointment with government, "everywhere the public turns there's no evidence of competence, and that can be very deeply corrosive," Renshon said. "Anybody who's elected in 2012 is going to have to deal with that, and it's going to be an awfully difficult barrier to overcome."

Public trust in government has been sliding for decades and has never been worse. A CBS/New York Times survey last year found 89 percent of Americans trust the government only some of the time or never.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer said presidents are forever governing in ways that are at odds with their campaign promises – think of President George H.W. Bush raising taxes despite his "read my lips" pledge that it wouldn't happen, or Woodrow Wilson leading the country into World War I after a re-election campaign with the slogan "He kept us out of war."

But Zelizer said broken promises are often "more accidental or circumstantial" than deliberate.

"Events change," he said. "It's hard for a candidate to predict what will actually happen when they're in the White House."

Obama and Romney, after reminding voters of that truth, must wish they could take an Etch A Sketch and clear the slate.

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EDITOR'S NOTE – Nancy Benac has written about government and politics in Washington for nearly three decades.

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AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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