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June 22, 2012 11:00 AM Many Americans Don’t Have Any Idea that All-Important Political Gaffes Even Happen

By John Sides

After Obama made his comment that the “private sector was doing fine” at that press conference, Chris Cillizza defended the notion that “political gaffes matter” and wrote:

Is there anyone paying even passing attention to politics who hasn’t seen the Obama clip five times at this point — which, by the way, is less than 96 hours after he said it? Answer: no.

Jon Bernstein was dubious.  I was too.  So in a June 16-18 YouGov poll—about a week after the press conference—we asked this question:

In a press conference last week, President Obama was asked about the state of the economy. How did he describe economic growth in the private sector?

  • The private sector is doing fine.
  • The private sector is struggling.
  • The private sector is mostly the same as it was.
  •  I didn’t hear what he said.

In total, 47% of respondents gave the correct answer (“doing fine”).  Nine percent said “struggling” and 4% said “mostly the same.”  About 39% said that they had not heard.  So, in total, 53% of Americans were apparently not paying even “passing attention to politics” and thereby did not learn—much less 5 different times—what Obama had said.

Cillizza is well-aware that few people tuned into the press conference itself.  But he thinks that doesn’t matter:

First, while it is true that midday cable television viewership is low, that rationale completely disregards the media world in which we live, where even the smallest comment can be amplified into a national headline in minutes.

What this survey makes clear is that even after national headlines, some kinds of stories just don’t register to busy Americans who have more things to do than follow every jot and tittle of the news. Which is one reason why the attention devoted to gaffes dwarfs their actual impact at the ballot box.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Logan Dobson (a former student, in fact) notes that Romney’s Super-PAC and Americans for Prosperity are about to spend about $13 million combined on ads focused on Obama’s comment.  He wonders whether we will see knowledge of Obama’s comment increase, especially in battleground states.  I agreed to repeat the question in a month.  Dobson thought that the 47% figure would increase to 55-60% overall, and probably higher in battleground states.  I will report back.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.