Surprise! Voters Don't Know or Care About 'Gaffes' the Media Love

A new poll shows most Americans have never heard of Obama's "doing fine" comment, despite an avalanche of coverage and ads.

A new poll shows most Americans have never heard of Obama's "doing fine" comment, despite an avalanche of coverage and ads.

The end of a busy week in politics seems like as good a time as any for a brief reality check. If you're reading this post, you're probably way out of the mainstream of the national political discussion. (Of coure, if you're writing this post, you're even farther out.)

Much of the daily churn of political journalism is devoted to frantic coverage of gaffes, both the traditional kind (someone says something that's wrong or false or offensive) and the Kinsley variety (someone accidentally tells the truth). Those are fun for political junkies and reporters, but there's plenty of evidence that they don't really filter down to voters. Take, for example, Barack Obama's ill-considered comment that the private sector was "doing fine" (I explained at the time what he was trying to say and why he wasn't totally wrong). The comment fed a couple of days of frantic coverage, and the Romney campaign eagerly jumped on it, releasing an ad spoofing a 2008 Obama attack on John McCain for saying that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong." A super PAC supporting Romney bashed the remark as part of a $7 million ad buy. For Latino voters, it was repackaged as "¿Van Bien?"

How did it work? Well, according to a YouGov poll, fewer than half of Americans (47 percent) were familiar with the phrase. A good number of those are probably solid Obama supporters anyway.

Compare that to another remark to which it was widely likened: the time when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said his boss could reverse some of the conservative stances he'd taken in the primary campaign, like an Etch a Sketch. It was heralded as a landmark of the campaign, and proof positive that Romney was too weak to contend with the president. A Pew poll shortly after the remark found that only a minority of Americans were familiar with the remark -- 44 percent, nearly identical to Obama's "doing fine." Three months later, the sky hasn't fallen and Romney's campaign is -- well, doing fine.

Obviously, since voters don't know about these gaffes, they don't affect candidates' standing, either. As Dartmouth political scientist and serial press scolder Brendan Nyhan wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last week, it's impossible to detect any real impact of the major gaffes of recent history on the Gallup daily tracking poll. And sure, these lines reappear in negative ads during campaign crunch time, he notes, but negative ads have little impact either.

It's important to keep this in mind when the next gaffe pops up. That isn't to say that gaffes are irrelevant; they all contribute to a general image of a candidate that forms over time. Probably more importantly, they have an impact on how the campaigns operate. Fear of gaffes makes candidates and campaigns gun-shy and cautious; fear of making them worse (probably unfounded, for the reasons explained above) shapes the way they approach similar future scenarios. Even if voters aren't paying attention, the campaigns are, and the most important influence is probably on the way they shape their own images.