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April 01, 2014 1:19 PM The Real Versus Mythical Power of Candidate Gaffes

By Ed Kilgore

In what should be a relatively non-controversial FiveThirtyEight post (if only because it makes no sweeping predictions), Nate Silver looks at Bruce Braley’s “Iowa farmer” gaffe and weighs the likelihood that it could be a “game-changer” in the Senate race to succeed Tom Harkin. Since we haven’t had any public polling of Iowa taken fully after the gaffe was publicized, it’s all guesswork at this point. But Silver looks at three previous high-publicity gaffes—Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” comments at a 2008 San Franciso fundraiser, Mitt Romney’s “47% video” in 2012, and perhaps the most relevant since it occurred in a Senate race, George Allen’s “Macaca Moment” in Virginia in 2006.

Looking back at the impact on subsequent polls, Nate finds that Obama’s “clinging” comments had no measurable impact on his 2008 nomination contest. Romney lost maybe a point via the “47% video” (though arguably it reduced his ability to sustain an autumn comeback).

Allen’s gaffe, though, loosened up a very close race with Jim Webb, improved Webb’s fundraising, and led to media discoveries of other racially insensitive comments by the incumbent.

After noting a lot of imponderables about the Iowa race, Silver suggests Braley’s gaffe has made a Republican win there “more plausible,” but we’ll have to wait for more polling, and for the Republican primary (and possibly a subsequent convention if no candidate tops the 35% needed to win the nomination outright), to find out if it really matters. Another key factor could be whether oppo research turns up more “elitist” comments by Braley to reinforce the “farmer” gaffe.

I tend to agree that Braley has put himself in a danger zone but should still be favored, at least until we see what happens with the less-than-brilliant GOP field (as I noted earlier, Joni Ernst’s success in taking advantage of the gaffe may have actually created the likelihood of a divisive and impredictable GOP convention).

One problem for Braley, as my wife pointed out to me, is that a significant number of Iowa voters have cast ballots for both Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley for a generation. So dissing Grassley could have reduced Braley’s support levels in the voter coalition that typically re-elected Harkin. But given the national dynamics of 2014, this race might well have eventually tightened up anyway.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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