Why Joe Biden's Gaffes Don't Matter

Though the vice president has a long history of blunders, they've rarely impacted his career.

Joe Biden misspeaking, or going too far, isn't news. The vice president's gaffe history is legendary; mistakes are expected. But three slips in the space of a mere 24 hours? That's a Biden record.

In a Tuesday speech, the vice president referred to people who sold bad loans to service members as "Shylocks," a Jewish slur derived from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The next day, just hours after apologizing for the antisemitic remark, he did it again, calling Asia "the Orient" in his kickoff speech for the "Nuns on the Bus" bus tour in Des Moines. And that afternoon, he capped off his Iowa trip—a testing ground for a possible 2016 run—with a flourish. Straying from the administration's set line that there wouldn't be any boots on the ground to combat ISIS in Iraq, he told a reporter, "We'll determine that based on how the effort goes."

But does any of it really matter? Sure, the Anti-Defamation League called the Shylock misstep "offensive" and said Biden "should have been more careful." And the White House will certainly walk back on Biden's off-message troops remark. But Biden has a long history of saying the wrong thing, and hasn't suffered serious, career-killing backlash for any of it.

Research shows that news media tends to overhype gaffes. Despite saturated coverage of politicians' misspeaks, according to the United States Project, they ultimately don't make much of a difference in elections. After President Obama said the private sector was "doing fine" in the thick of the 2012 election, Gallup showed an increase in the president's numbers, from 46 percent three days before the so-called gaffe to 49 percent three days post.

When a gaffe does matter, FiveThirtyEight noted earlier this year, is when it motivates the base. In the 2006 Virginia Senate race, all signs pointed to Sen. George Allen winning an easy reelection against Democratic challenger Jim Webb. That is, until he called a campaign tracker—a man of Indian descent—a "macaca," a racial slur. That fired up Webb's supporters, whose contributions to the campaign spiked, and added to Allen's already-established reputation of racial intolerance.

Biden doesn't have a history of antisemitism or racism toward Asian people. "Clearly, there was no ill intent here," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, of Biden's Shylock comment. "There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden."

He does, however, have a storied history of blunders. One of the most memorable came in 2007, when he called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." That didn't prevent the two from teaming up for the Democratic ticket.

In 2012, a Biden gaffe had serious repercussions for the Obama administration: His Meet the Press declaration that he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage. That forced Obama to take a stance on a position he'd only danced around in the past, and just days later, he became the first U.S. president to fully endorse gay marriage.

The only time a mess-up could have derailed the vice president's career was in 1988, when it was discovered that the then-senator had plagiarized parts of a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock. Shortly after, it came out that he'd lifted text for a paper in law school, forcing him to end his presidential campaign.

This, though, was a substantial error in judgment—not a gaffe. Biden's favorability rating has remained largely static during his time as vice president, and, as he himself acknowledged Tuesday in the very same speech where he called amoral bankers Shylocks, his slip-ups come from his propensity to, well, be himself. "No one ever doubts that I mean what I say," he said. "The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean."