In the past 24 hours we’ve had two hotly reported U.S. Senate campaign gaffes: Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley insulted Iowa farmers, and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell’s campaign used footage of a triumphant (and reviled) Duke University basketball team in a campaign video.
Gaffes are fun to report. But they don't have much effect on the outcomes of general elections in contests that receive plenty of attention and take place months after the fact.
Gaffes can matter a lot more in primary elections because primary voters often have trouble differentiating between candidates with similar views. And they can matter in local races. But in high-profile races -- hotly contested Senate elections, for instance -- gaffes bob on the surface of a vast sea of information. The more attention an election generates, the less important any particular gaffe becomes. And just as studies have found that the effects of campaign ads fade rapidly, any effect from a gaffe is likely to disappear swiftly.
Are there exceptions? To the extent that reporters in the “neutral” press observe a series of gaffes, they may highlight that vulnerability in stories about a candidate; that could have electoral effects. Similarly, if a particular gaffe underscores a pre-existing story about a candidate, it may encourage reporters to repeat that story more often. And if a gaffe is so horrible that same-party candidates and opinion leaders feel obliged not only to condemn the gaffe but also the candidate, then it certainly will matter. (If you pull all these threads together, you basically have the story of former Representative Todd Akin of Missouri.)
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