Next Tuesday, millions of Americans will head to their local polling places to select the next President of the United States.
It’s about time. We’ve been subjected to a two-year campaign in which the candidates have been on our television screens for hundreds of hours. Most of those hours have been unremarkable—but a few memorable moments turned into PR disasters for the campaigns.
This post will highlight the ten worst media disasters of the 2012 presidential campaign.
You will notice that there are more Republicans than Democrats on my list. That’s not due to political bias, but simple math: There were eight Republicans competing for their party’s nomination, while President Obama ran unopposed. Republicans debated one another during the primaries almost two dozen times; President Obama debated no one on the Democratic side.
Therefore, Republicans were much more visible during much of the campaign, occupied a lot of the media airtime and headlines, and had more opportunities to make mistakes. For that reason only, you’ll see more of them on this list.
10. Newt Gingrich: I’m Going To Be The Nominee
Last December, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a confident declaration:
“I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Mr. Gingrich’s time at the top of the polls quickly ended after he declared his intent to build a moon colony by 2020. He ended up carrying only one state outside his native Georgia.
9. Michele Bachmann’s Dubious “Mental Retardation” Claim
Michele Bachmann opposes a mandated HPV vaccine, which helps protects young women from cervical cancer. But she went a step too far when she shared an anecdote about a woman on the campaign trail who said her daughter “suffers from mental retardation” as a result of getting the vaccine.
Rep. Bachmann later defended herself by claiming she was just passing along a story without judging it as true. But her dubious medical claim put at risk people who decided to forgo the vaccine as a result of her misinformation.
8. President Obama: “The Private Sector is Doing Fine”
At a press conference in June, President Obama uttered a phrase he came to regret.
While speaking about the economy, he said, “The private sector is doing fine.” By some measurements, that may have been true. But by making such a declarative statement, he handed his opponents a perfect opportunity to paint him as an out-of-touch politician who was disconnected from economic reality.
7. Herman Cain’s “Rolling Disclosures”
When faced with allegations of sexual harassment last November, Herman Cain responded in the worst possible way: with a series of “rolling disclosures.”
“Rolling disclosures” occur when a spokesperson fails to disclose everything they know from the start, opting instead to drip out information slowly. As a result, every time the spokesperson reveals a new detail—no matter how trivial—new oxygen gets pumped into the story. That approach has the net effect of extending the shelf life of the crisis while diminishing the believability of each new iteration of the story.
Herman Cain’s time at the top of the polls ended due not to the allegations—but his handling of the allegations.
6. Mitt Romney’s $10,000 Bet
When Mitt Romney turned to Republican primary opponent Rick Perry and challenged him to a “$10,000 bet,” he reinforced his image as an out-of-touch rich guy. It wasn’t just his $10,000 bet. He also told one audience that his wife drives two Cadillacs, told another that they should just borrow money from their parents if they’re short of cash, and told a radio host that although he doesn’t watch NASCAR, he’s friends with some team owners.
5. President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” and Mitt Romney’s “I Like Being Able to Fire People”
I’m judging both of these as equal gaffes—mostly because both lines were taken out of context by political opponents.
Opponents accused President Obama of saying that small business owners didn’t build their own businesses but that government did. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that business owners didn’t build the roads that led customers to their doors or the Internet they use to conduct business.)
Opponents accused Governor Romney of saying that he liked to fire people. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that he liked being able to cancel policies from bad health insurance companies.)
Regardless, both lines were damaging to both candidates. And it proves that in this media age, you can’t afford to commit the deadly seven-second stray.
4. Herman Cain Draws a Blank on Libya
We’ve all had that terrible moment when we’ve gone completely blank. Unfortunately for Herman Cain, his moment was caught on video. When he was asked why he opposed President Obama’s policy in Libya, let’s just say he struggled to come up with an answer.
3. Mitt Romney’s Secret “47 Percent” Video
At a May fundraiser, Mitt Romney shared his views of President Obama’s voters in a secretly filmed video that was later leaked to the liberal Mother Jones Magazine. In the video, Mr. Romney, said:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it….My job is not to worry about those people.”
The video was a disaster for Mr. Romney’s campaign, taking them far off their desired messages just two months before Election Day.
2. President Obama’s First Debate
In terms of sheer political impact, little comes close to President Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate. As Mitt Romney attacked his record, Mr. Obama responded without any discernible passion, instead making meandering points full of “uhhhs.”
As a result, Governor Romney delivered a humiliating thumping to the President, who sank in the polls almost immediately. If President Obama loses next Tuesday, historians will cite this debate as a major reason why. If he wins, it will be a lot closer than it otherwise could have been.
This media disaster ranks number two for only one reason: This list is intended to look at short media moments, not entire debates. But this debate was just too impactful to ignore.
The video below is an edited compilation of some of Mr. Obama’s many “uhhhs.” It’s emblematic of how hesitant and unfocused he was throughout the debate.
1. Rick Perry’s Infamous “Oops”
During a Republican primary debate in November 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry confidently declared that he would eliminate three government agencies. Unfortunately for him, he promptly forgot what they were.
For 47 painful seconds, Mr. Perry tried to recall the third agency he would eliminate. He finally gave up, shrugged his shoulders, and lamely said, “oops.” That one moment likely sank any remaining chances Mr. Perry had of winning the nomination. In terms of an immediate and spectacular self-immolation, nothing came even close.
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