THE BLOG
07/14/2014 11:19 am ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

When a Political Gaffe Torpedoes a Political Candidate

With another election season upon us, it is close to certainty that we will see political candidates make major gaffes, including answering a question honestly, when political correctness would be the prudent tactic. Candidates sometimes misspeak, like in 1968 when Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey told Playboy magazine: "No sane person in the country likes the War in Vietnam, and neither does President [Lyndon B.] Johnson."

Sometimes a gaffe occurs when a candidate makes an attempt at humor and falls flat, like in 2011, when Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney told unemployed Americans in Tampa, Florida, "I should tell my story. I too am unemployed."

Sometimes a candidate can appear insensitive, like in 1978, when Massachusetts Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Ed King was asked about the potential dangers of his plan to repeal environmental regulations, and his advocacy of nuclear power. King cavalierly stated: "I'm sure we'll find a cure for cancer."

However, in rare instances, a political gaffe has proven fatal and the candidate never recovered. For example, in 1900, the Democratic Party was looking for a candidate to take on the Republican incumbent, William McKinley. McKinley was riding a wave of popularity for his role in leading the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War. Democrats thought they could co-opt McKinley's foreign policy bone fides by nominating Admiral George Dewey. Dewey became a national icon for his role in defeating the Spanish during the war at the critical Battle of Manila Bay. When Dewey returned home, parades were held in his honor.

Dewey did not seem to understand however that the American people had come to expect an activist President who serves as a leader, not a figurehead who is subservient to the prerogatives of the U.S. Congress. Rather than laying out his own ambitious agenda, Dewey said that as President he would: "execute the laws of Congress as faithfully as I have always executed the orders of my superiors." In addition, Dewey came across as supercilious by suggesting that the Presidency would not be a hard job: "I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill."

Despite being apotheosized by the American people, Dewey had no experience in elective politics. He did not attempt to filter his words and spoke directly off the cuff, and in doing so, he made too many gaffes. These gaffes resulted in Dewey's campaign ending before it started. Adding insult to injury for the Democrats, Dewey endorsed McKinley over the eventual Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan.

Similarly, in 1967, the early frontrunner for the Republican Presidential nomination was the popular, charismatic, telegnenic Governor of Michigan, George Romney. This was an opportune time for a Romney candidacy. With conservative Barry Goldwater having lost in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the Party was in desperate need for a moderate nominee with crossover appeal in the General Election. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (who eventually announced he would not seek re-election) appeared electorally vulnerable, and the party was galvanized, having picked up 47 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and three U.S. Senate seats in the 1966 mid-term elections. A Gallup Poll conducted in 1967 showed Romney beating Johnson by eight points. However, in just one interview Governor Romney sabotaged his candidacy.

In 1965, Romney took a 31-day expedition to Vietnam, meeting with U.S. military and Defense officials. When he returned home, Romney announced his support for the continued escalation of U.S. troops in that nation's Civil War. Romney told Lou Gordon of WKB-TV in Detroit that he'd had "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." Romney subsequently reversed himself, voicing opposition to the war. However, the notion that a would-be President could be "brainwashed" did not sit well with Republican voters. Because of this gaffe, his poll numbers dropped precipitously, and Romney egressed from the race before the New Hampshire Primary.

Usually candidates who are ahead in the polls tend to make their remarks as general and as innocuous a possible so as not to lose any voters they already have. However, in 1990, Democrat John Silber, who harbored a commanding lead over Republican Bill Weld in the Massachusetts Gubernatorial race, inexplicably went off script.

Silber was asked why he did not campaign in the inner-city Boston community of Roxbury. Astonishingly, Silber responded: "There's no point in my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts." While Silber could have recovered from this gaffe, it was in a subsequent interview with Natalie Jacobson of WCVB-TV in Boston where Silber, still up by nine points, handed the election to Weld on a silver platter. Jacobson asked a seemingly pedestrian question: "What's your biggest weakness?" Silber snapped: "You find a weakness. I don't have to go around telling you what's wrong with me. The media have manufactured about 16,000 nonexistent qualities that are offensive and attributed them all to me. Let them have their field day. You can pick any one of them." With that unnecessary statement, Silber's poll numbers took a nosedive and he lost the election to Republican Bill Weld by four points.

Ed Koch, having been elected Mayor of New York City, presumably would have the political dexterity not to offend the state's many suburban voters, but he did. During his failed 1982 run for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York, Mayor Ed Koch asked Peter Manso of Playboy Magazine: "Have you ever lived in the suburbs? I haven't but I've talked to people who have, and it's sterile. It's nothing. It's wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they've seen New York [City]." Then when Manso asked Koch why people would live in New York City, given "lousy city service and late subways," Koch again exploded on the suburbs, asserting, "As opposed to wasting time in a car? Or out in the country, wasting time in a pickup truck? When you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit. The rural American thing I'm telling you, it's a joke." Koch lost the nomination to Mario Cuomo.

While it is customary for a candidate to attack an opponent, sometimes demeaning attacks can actually backfire and help the opponent. For example, in 1994, Texas Governor Ann Richards heaped approbation on Debbie Colman, who won the Texarkana Teacher of the Year Award. She blasted Republican nominee George W. Bush for suggesting that she had manipulated student test scores in an election year. Richards, in praising Colman, exclaimed: "You just work like a dog, do well, the test scores are up, the kids are looking better, the dropout rate is down. And all of a sudden, you've got some jerk who's running for public office [George W. Bush] telling everybody it's all a sham." Texas voters viewed this rhetoric as below the belt. This gaffe contributed significantly to Richards loss to Bush.

A political candidate is almost always in the spotlight and often suffers from exhaustion. It is easy for even the most seasoned candidates to make a mistake. A political gaffe normally results in a few days of being taken off-message, defending or backtracking from one's comments. However, on rare occasions the gaffe is so major that a candidate cannot recover. Journalist Michael Kinsley gave perhaps the best definition of a political gaffe: "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth - some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."