Did you see last week’s big story about how Joe Biden allies are trying to foist a new strategy on the Democratic frontrunner’s campaign—talk less, and thereby avoid gaffes?
If not, don’t bother reading it. There are really only two interesting things about the story, and neither is what’s actually reported. Here’s what you need to know, and the only reasons you should care.
First, there are apparently Biden allies out there who haven’t recognized that even among the large number of voters who will not cast a ballot for him in 2020, or—indeed those who would not in either of his prior two presidential runs—there are precious few voters who don’t like the guy.
And second, Bidenworld—despite its manifest population by experienced political hands—apparently has not learned a key lesson of modern politics: 95 percent of what you think are disastrous events that will tank your campaign turn out to be absolutely irrelevant (or maybe even advantageous) to the final outcome. Gaffes, and a candidate’s propensity for them, almost always fall in that category. Team Biden should quit fretting about them and let Joe—who has always been a major league “gaffer”—be Joe.
This view runs counter to conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
The supposition on which the CW is founded is that voters hate gaffes. This supposition is dead wrong. In 2016, we elected the most gaffe-prone American to ever participate in a presidential race. He routinely misspoke, made inaccurate statements, confused facts, and showed a manifest lack of understanding of both important policy details (Google “Trump” and “nuclear triad”) and basic the basic foundations of government.
These missteps did not cost him the election.
Maybe you think it’s because he was graded on a special curve because he was new to national politics. Or maybe you think it’s because the public didn’t consider Trump’s gaffes to be “gaffes”—but rather deliberate, strategically-executed lies. It’s possible that either or both of these explanations is true in some part. But it seems more likely that voters just don’t mind gaffes the way political strategists do if—and this is the key—they decide that at base, they like the candidate.
George W. Bush won two presidential elections and he was a gaffe machine. Remember his comment that “Too many OBY-GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country?” Or “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Or “Fool me once, shame on . . . shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again?” Bush was ripe for mockery from his opponents—as is Biden.
But everyone starts out with 40 percent of the country voting against them. The real variable is what the other 60 percent think. And when this mass of the voters just likes the candidate, then they’re willing to overlook lots (and lots) of verbal mistakes.
On spec, the 2008 version of Barrack Obama is a candidate you would have expected to never gaffe: Columbia and Harvard, obviously smart, a former law school lecturer. And even so, he had his share of verbal missteps. I know, because I worked at the Republican National Committee at the time and was the person responsible for ginning up online mockery of Obama for these gaffes, mostly to knock him off his actual (winning) message and force his team to waste time on stupid stuff that wouldn’t move the needle. (Whereas executing his actual strategy did.)
Some favorites: Obama said he’d been to “57 states” as part of his campaign. He confused Sioux City and Sioux Falls. He claimed to have seen astronauts come ashore in Hawaii as a child. (If he meant the Apollo 11 crew and in person, it doesn’t seem to have happened—they landed 825 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii and then went aboard a carrier and exited in Houston.) I even recall Obama starting a rally in Texas making reference to a “siesta” when he clearly meant a “fiesta” (maybe it was bad audio, but that’s how I heard it).
Mind you, some gaffes do hurt. Trump’s comments in the aftermath of Charlottesville still haunt his poll numbers. Obama’s “bitter clingers” comments hurt him down the stretch in the Democratic primaries as he got pounded in the rust belt. Maybe the rule is that the gaffes that hurt are the ones where you mistakenly let your true feelings out.
But even those two major mistakes did ultimately did less damage than most of us thought they would at the time. And here’s another lesson: It’s probably because, in both of those cases, the politicians leaned into them and didn’t get down into a defensive crouch. One basic truth of politics that Trump has intuited from the start—and that Obama and Bush generally adhered to—is that you don’t apologize. Not ever. Misspeaking or saying stupid/inadvisable stuff is bound to happen. It’s survivable. Being perceived as weak is not.
Which is one reason Biden advisers who want to hide the candidate aren’t helping their client. If a candidate curtails his public appearances, he looks weak.
But the candidate who pulls back on public appearances also risks looking overly scripted, controlled, and animatronic. While gaffing serves to make him look more human. It’s axiomatic that the winner of our quaderennial presidential contests tends to be the guy you’d rather have a beer with. That’s held true in every contest at least since 1980. (With the possible exception of 2008; your mileage may vary.)
You couldn’t have a real beer with Biden (or Trump, for that matter), but the fact that these big, powerful, rich, and very important men flub their words with some regularity probably helps convey that they are guys you could bond with over an ice cream cone, or a Filet O Fish, or a cheeseburger pizza.
Biden’s team should understand that this fact is actually the core of their candidate’s appeal—and he should lean into it, not away from it.
Precious few people in 2020 are voting for the “best professor” or “best aligner of management and shareholder value” or even “candidate most in line with me philosophically.” Presidential politics has always been a personality contest. And personality is what Joe Biden has in spades.
He and his team should embrace it. Gaffes and all.