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May 21, 2014 4:20 PM “Killer Gaffes” And Unexpected Victims

By Ed Kilgore

Slate’s Dave Weigel makes an interesting observation today after looking at the latest PPP poll on the Senate race in Iowa:

Do you remember Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley’s killer gaffe? You must. Earlier this year, Braley told a room of trial lawyers/possible donors to his Senate campaign that a Republican takeover of the upper house would give the Judiciary Committee to Sen. Chuck Grassley, a “farmer from Iowa” who didn’t even go to law school. By general agreement, even according to Nate Silver, it was the rare gaffe that mattered. One group spent a quarter of a million dollars to air the quote on TV. All of that came as Joni Ernst, a Republican who had heretofore not impressed the strategists who didn’t work for her, ran an ad that portrayed her as a folky, hog-castrating farmer.
So, what’s happened?
“Bruce Braley led Ernst by 6 points in February at 41/35 and he continues to lead by 6 points now at 45/39, with the undecided pool shrinking some as Ernst has become better known. Braley has leads of 6-9 points against the other Republican contenders as well- it’s 42/36 over Jacobs, 43/36 over Whitaker, and 43/34 over Clovis. Braley’s average lead of 7 points over the Republican field is identical to what it was on our last poll.”

So nothing to see hear, right? Next time you hear of a “killer gaffe,” you should probably just look away, right?

Not exactly. The “Iowa farmer” gaffe may not have hurt Bruce Braley, or even hurt Bruce Braley against Joni Ernst, but it sure helped Joni Ernst get into a position to challenge Bruce Braley:

PPP’s newest Iowa poll finds Joni Ernst in the driver’s seat with the Republican Senate primary right around the corner. Ernst leads the field with 34% to 18% for Mark Jacobs, 14% for Sam Clovis, and 6% for Matt Whitaker. Compared to our last poll in February Ernst has gained 21 points and Clovis has moved up 6 points, while Jacobs has actually seen his support decline by a couple points.

The Braley video made the news on March 25. Ernst’s “hog castrating” ad came out the same day, a brilliant bit of timing (or luck, or some believe, skullduggery) that made it the rare campaign video to go viral after it had already generated massive earned media.

The whole saga occurred between public polls of the Senate race, but the next poll to come out, a Suffolk survey in early April, showed Ernst rocketing past Mark Jacobs (whose support levels have remained pretty much stable all along) into a lead that has now taken her to the threshold of victory with less than two weeks before the primary. Would any of this have happened without the Braley hook to Ernst’s ad? That’s hard to say, but she sure went from being a uninspiring candidate with a troublesome tax increase vote in her past to being a world-beater in a big hurry.

So no, the “killer gaffe” didn’t kill Braley. But it might have killed Mark Jacobs.

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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