Washington — Last weekend, the “Robot Rubio” label slid right off Sen. Marco Rubio as he finished second in the South Carolina primaries.
Now, Ohio Gov. John Kasich will be hoping that the early criticism surrounding his comment that women “left their kitchens” to vote for him in 1979 similarly slips from voters’ minds.
So far, political gaffes don’t look to be as dangerous to candidates this campaign cycle as they’re made out to be.
Senator Rubio’s robotic performance in the New Hampshire presidential debate seemed to hurt him in the Granite State, but he’s polling second or third heading into Tuesday’s caucuses in Nevada. Meanwhile, it seems that Donald Trump can say pretty much whatever he wants.
On Monday, Governor Kasich told a crowd that his first election victory, for the state Senate, came when he “got an army of people … and many women who left their kitchens to go out and go door to door and put yard signs up for me all the way back when things were different.”
The statement is true. Many of Kasich’s supporters in 1978 were stay-at-home moms, his campaign notes, and the share of women in the workforce full time was less than half of what it is now. But The Washington Post’s Elisa Viebeck summarized the social media reaction to the statement as “foot, meet mouth.”
No question, gaffes can kill. In 2012, GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin was pummeled after his comment about the female body’s ways of preventing pregnancy after “legitimate rape.” Six years earlier, Republican George Allen lost his Senate reelection bid after referring to his opponent’s nonwhite staff member as a “Macaca.”
But Kasich’s comment might fit a different scenario: The overheated media trying to turn every Twitter fight into a major faux pas. Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, writes that the power of the gaffe to make or break a campaign is overrated.
“Journalists routinely promote the importance of these sorts of pseudo-controversies, even though there is little convincing evidence that gaffes affect presidential election outcomes,” he wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2012. Far more important are the winning candidates’ “underlying advantages in the campaign fundamentals.”
Gaffes can, however, hurt candidates more in primaries where people’s preferences over candidates are more fluid due to the lack of party labels, he writes in an e-mail.
One way to consider the impact of the gaffe is how it fits with a candidate’s brand, says GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.
“The question is, does a gaffe or a controversy really cut against your brand? If what you do fits within your brand, it probably doesn’t do that much damage,” he says.
Take Mr. Trump.
His persona is authenticity, strong leadership – and the opposite of political correctness. As Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza put it on Monday, Trump’s “willingness to say anything, no matter the underlying facts, seems to affirm to his supporters just how ‘independent’ of the political system he really is.”
Rubio’s gaffe didn’t stick precisely because it did not match his brand, Mr. Mackowiak explains. The senator is known as a strong debater. “What’s interesting about Rubio is that he’s been really good in every part of every debate except that one moment” in the New Hampshire debate. He noted that Rubio bounced back with a strong performance in the next debate.
Conversely, were Jeb Bush to have delivered the bravado that Trump is known for, it wouldn’t have worked, says Mackowiak.
“The worst thing you can do in a campaign is try to be something that you’re not.”
In its “Gaffe Track,” The Atlantic recently cited Hillary Clinton’s answers to a Feb. 3 debate question about whether she should have taken $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. “Well, I don’t know, that’s what they offered,” she replied, adding that “every secretary of State that I know has done that.”
The problem here is that the gaffe underscores a negative about the Clinton brand – that she is too cozy with Wall Street. “Not only has she failed to put these questions to rest, answers like her one Wednesday night are so tin-eared as to amplify the problem,” The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote.
For Kasich, his clear defense was that he was simply conveying the truth of what happened. “John Kasich’s campaigns have always been homegrown affairs,” a spokesman told NBC News. “They’ve literally been run out of his friends’ kitchens and many of his early campaign teams were made up of stay-at-home moms.… That’s real grass-roots campaigning and he’s proud of that authentic support. To try and twist his comments into anything else is just desperate politics.”
But at a time when social media can create a momentum all its own, the comments are being viewed by some as condescending. “When I heard John Kasich’s latest offensive views on women and our rights, I almost dropped the casserole I was taking out of the oven,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue in a statement.
Taking stock of the social media reaction, the Post’s Ms. Viebeck suggests the comment could sound “tone deaf and belittling to contemporary ears.”
At a time when Republicans are trying to make inroads with women voters, “such comments could be counterproductive,” adds Gabrielle Levy of US News & World Report.