09/18/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will A Gaffe Be A 2012 Campaign-Killer? Political Science Says 'No'

The pointed question, shouted at Mitt Romney in Poland, that more or less sums up the 2012 campaign season, is "What about your gaffes?" Well, what about them? In the wake of the release of Mitt Romney's donor party video, there's been a lot of breathless talk about Romney's remarks therein being the death knell of his campaign hopes. Bloomberg's Josh Barro bravely offered the firmest conjecture: "You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser, released today by David Corn at Mother Jones, has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president."

Look, it would be nice if political successes and failures could all be traced back to some frozen moment on the campaign trail instead of a complicated combination of economic factors, overall campaign management, on-the-ground organization, and voters brought to the polls to make a simple choice that sums up their values and aspirations at the place where the personal and political intersect.

But it's very, very possible to overstate the effect of so-called gaffes, and in times such as these, I look to people like The Monkey Cage's John Sides to dispel the charged air with some sensible political science. And Sides' numbers suggest that the big 2012 "gaffes" aren't moving the needle. Per Sides: "No discernible or certainly consequential movement because of Obama's two 'gaffes.' The only movement after Romney's comments about the Libya attack is in his favor, thanks largely to the probably inevitable tightening after Obama's convention bump."

He has a graph that will finally make this clear.

gaffes and polls

From this perspective, the story of the race seems pretty by-the-book. Obama enjoys a fairly consistent, fairly small lead over Romney. Romney narrowed the gap toward the end of August. Obama bounced it wide open some time after. Now we're back to the narrow Obama lead. (As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake reports, "the bounce that Obama got from the convention is essentially gone.") Those "gaffes" aren't having the sort of impact that justifies their hype.

Of course, campaigns that make a lot of mistakes tend to lose, and since Romney has clearly been pulled into this discussion over his donor party remarks against his desires, he's certainly vulnerable now to the sorts of errors you can make when you lose control of the conversation. And as Kevin Drum points out, Romney's control of that conversation could come to be lost by his nominal allies: "The damage Romney did to himself by privately pandering to this sentiment is bad enough already. But the most unhinged segment of his supporters is going to make it even worse, repeating his argument endlessly in far cruder terms than Romney did."

Conversely, there's always the chance that Team Obama Re-Elect overplays whatever hand they now think they've been dealt. But the larger point is this: Just as they say "it's not the crime that kills you, but the coverup," it's not the gaffe that kills you, but everything that comes after. And from there, you get into unmeasureable hypotheticals. Per Sides:

The best argument you can make about these gaffes is sort of a woolly counterfactual: "Well, if it hadn't been for the release of Romney's video today, Romney would have been able to accomplish X, Y, and Z, which would have helped him win the election." Like any counterfactual, there is some plausibility -- yes, Romney would rather talk about the unemployment rate than these comments.

But like any counterfactual, it's predicated on assumptions about what the world would have looked like without these comments.

Maybe Romney's "47 percent" remarks will prove to be some sort of "game changer." But go read Sides' whole post on the matter -- as you'll see, there's no 2008 precedent for a candidacy-scuttling "gaffe" either.

Mitt Romney and that 47% [The Monkey Cage]

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