October 20, 2014

Journalistic stories about the importance of gaffes in political campaigns or about how Martha Coakley’s poor campaign skills cost her the 2010 senate election are a little like Kenny on South Park: even though Kenny dies at the end of nearly every show, he’s alive again at the start of the next episode.

Oh my God! You revived the gaffe and Coakley stories! You bastards!

A story in the Boston Globe’s Friday “Capital” section titled Governor’s race and election of dread explained the dread factor in these terms:

He or she who gaffes last may gaffe hardest.

With the governor’s race, both in polls and the private appraisals of campaign strategists, nearing a photo finish, a common theme has cropped up with operatives in both parties during the last few weeks: some variation of “whoever makes the last mistake loses.”

Yes, if Charlie Baker calls Janet Wu “Toots” or Martha Coakley places Tom Brady in a Broncos uniform it could be all over. It could have the same fatal consequences as Elizabeth Warren mangling the Native American story or Mitt Romney opining that 47% of Americans are deadbeats who would never vote for such a dynamic leader. That is to say, gaffes have a negligible impact on campaigns, as I explained in ‘Sweetheart’ of an Idea: Why Game Changing Moments Rarely Change Anything. To repeat what I wrote there:

In The Gamble, the compelling book about the 2012 presidential campaign by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, the authors recount a study that showed that media accounts described sixty-eight separate moments as “game changers” in the presidential election. None of them were.

So why do we keep seeing gaffe stories? I guess because political reporters talk to political insiders and “operatives in both parties” and political junkies generally love to obsess over the story of the day, like “sweetheart.”

The Globe raised Coakley’s less than scintillating 2010 performance but nothing like an embarrassing story that appeared in Politico last week, Martha Chokeley: Is the worst candidate in Massachusetts about to lose again? Rather than a serious look at a very close race for the only office that Republicans can actually contest in Massachusetts (remember 1990 – 2006?) the piece contains a series of cheap jokes at Coakley’s expense. So let me say I love journalism and depend on it; but some articles just make my heart sink.

In this case as I told the Politico reporter, and which he graciously included in his story, Coakley didn’t lose that race because she misidentified Curt Schilling as a Yankee. She lost the race most likely because of terribly poor economic conditions for which President Obama and the Democrats had failed to provide relief. I’ve made that argument in The Myth of Martha Coakley’s Mistakes and many times since.

I actually like it when Kenny is revived with each new episode of South Park; but some political stories should die and stay dead.

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