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With another election season upon us, it is close to certainty that we will see political candidates make major gaffes, including answering a question honestly, when political correctness would be the prudent tactic. Candidates sometimes misspeak, like in 1968 when Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey told Playboy magazine: “No sane person in the country likes the War in Vietnam, and neither does President [Lyndon B.] Johnson.”

Sometimes a gaffe occurs when a candidate makes an attempt at humor and falls flat, like in 2011, when Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney told unemployed Americans in Tampa, Florida, “I should tell my story. I too am unemployed.”

Sometimes a candidate can appear insensitive, like in 1978, when Massachusetts Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Ed King was asked about the potential dangers of his plan to repeal environmental regulations, and his advocacy of nuclear power. King cavalierly stated: “I’m sure we’ll find a cure for cancer.”

However, in rare instances, a political gaffe has proven fatal and the candidate never recovered. For example, in 1900, the Democratic Party was looking for a candidate to take on the Republican incumbent, William McKinley. McKinley was riding a wave of popularity for his role in leading the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War. Democrats thought they could co-opt McKinley’s foreign policy bone fides by nominating Admiral George Dewey. Dewey became a national icon for his role in defeating the Spanish during the war at the critical Battle of Manila Bay. When Dewey returned home, parades were held in his honor.

Dewey did not seem to understand however that the American people had come to expect an activist President who serves as a leader, not a figurehead who is subservient to the prerogatives of the U.S. Congress. Rather than laying out his own ambitious agenda, Dewey said that as President he would: “execute the laws of Congress as faithfully as I have always executed the orders of my superiors.” In addition, Dewey came across as supercilious by suggesting that the Presidency would not be a hard job: “I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill.”

Despite being apotheosized by the American people, Dewey had no experience in elective politics. He did not attempt to filter his words and spoke directly off the cuff, and in doing so, he made too many gaffes. These gaffes resulted in Dewey’s campaign ending before it started. Adding insult to injury for the Democrats, Dewey endorsed McKinley over the eventual Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan.

Similarly, in 1967, the early frontrunner for the Republican Presidential nomination was the popular, charismatic, telegnenic Governor of Michigan, George Romney. This was an opportune time for a Romney candidacy. With conservative Barry Goldwater having lost in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the Party was in desperate need for a moderate nominee with crossover appeal in the General Election. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (who eventually announced he would not seek re-election) appeared electorally vulnerable, and the party was galvanized, having picked up 47 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and three U.S. Senate seats in the 1966 mid-term elections. A Gallup Poll conducted in 1967 showed Romney beating Johnson by eight points. However, in just one interview Governor Romney sabotaged his candidacy.

In 1965, Romney took a 31-day expedition to Vietnam, meeting with U.S. military and Defense officials. When he returned home, Romney announced his support for the continued escalation of U.S. troops in that nation’s Civil War. Romney told Lou Gordon of WKB-TV in Detroit that he’d had “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” Romney subsequently reversed himself, voicing opposition to the war. However, the notion that a would-be President could be “brainwashed” did not sit well with Republican voters. Because of this gaffe, his poll numbers dropped precipitously, and Romney egressed from the race before the New Hampshire Primary.

Usually candidates who are ahead in the polls tend to make their remarks as general and as innocuous a possible so as not to lose any voters they already have. However, in 1990, Democrat John Silber, who harbored a commanding lead over Republican Bill Weld in the Massachusetts Gubernatorial race, inexplicably went off script.

Silber was asked why he did not campaign in the inner-city Boston community of Roxbury. Astonishingly, Silber responded: “There’s no point in my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts.” While Silber could have recovered from this gaffe, it was in a subsequent interview with Natalie Jacobson of WCVB-TV in Boston where Silber, still up by nine points, handed the election to Weld on a silver platter. Jacobson asked a seemingly pedestrian question: “What’s your biggest weakness?” Silber snapped: “You find a weakness. I don’t have to go around telling you what’s wrong with me. The media have manufactured about 16,000 nonexistent qualities that are offensive and attributed them all to me. Let them have their field day. You can pick any one of them.” With that unnecessary statement, Silber’s poll numbers took a nosedive and he lost the election to Republican Bill Weld by four points.

Ed Koch, having been elected Mayor of New York City, presumably would have the political dexterity not to offend the state’s many suburban voters, but he did. During his failed 1982 run for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York, Mayor Ed Koch asked Peter Manso of Playboy Magazine: “Have you ever lived in the suburbs? I haven’t but I’ve talked to people who have, and it’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they’ve seen New York [City].” Then when Manso asked Koch why people would live in New York City, given “lousy city service and late subways,” Koch again exploded on the suburbs, asserting, “As opposed to wasting time in a car? Or out in the country, wasting time in a pickup truck? When you have to drive 20 miles to buy a gingham dress or a Sears Roebuck suit. The rural American thing I’m telling you, it’s a joke.” Koch lost the nomination to Mario Cuomo.

While it is customary for a candidate to attack an opponent, sometimes demeaning attacks can actually backfire and help the opponent. For example, in 1994, Texas Governor Ann Richards heaped approbation on Debbie Colman, who won the Texarkana Teacher of the Year Award. She blasted Republican nominee George W. Bush for suggesting that she had manipulated student test scores in an election year. Richards, in praising Colman, exclaimed: “You just work like a dog, do well, the test scores are up, the kids are looking better, the dropout rate is down. And all of a sudden, you’ve got some jerk who’s running for public office [George W. Bush] telling everybody it’s all a sham.” Texas voters viewed this rhetoric as below the belt. This gaffe contributed significantly to Richards loss to Bush.

A political candidate is almost always in the spotlight and often suffers from exhaustion. It is easy for even the most seasoned candidates to make a mistake. A political gaffe normally results in a few days of being taken off-message, defending or backtracking from one’s comments. However, on rare occasions the gaffe is so major that a candidate cannot recover. Journalist Michael Kinsley gave perhaps the best definition of a political gaffe: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”


No matter what else he accomplishes in life, David Brat’s obituary may well read “Giant Killer” or something to that effect. The fact that the formerly obscure Randolph-Macon College Economics Professor defeated U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in his bid for renomination to his congressional seat sent shockwaves through the body politic.

The Tea Party and national conservative forces from outside the district coalesced and galvanized to defeat Eric Cantor who did not meet their ideological litmus test. Cantor’s efforts to increase his national political profile by gallivanting around the country speaking at political events and appearing on national television rather than spending time in his Congressional District, effectuated a fissure between himself and his constituents. This resulted in few Republicans coming out to support him in the primary. Many constituents came to think Cantor viewed his seat as a perpetual sinecure, and that he did not take seriously the prospect of losing it. Cantor’s job disproval rating among his constituents rose to a staggering 65 percent.

Cantor was the biggest political figure in the U.S. House of Representatives to lose a re-election bid since 1994, when U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) lost his re-election bid to Republican George Nethercutt, a little-known attorney. The circumstances of Foley’s loss were different from Cantor’s. Unlike Cantor, Foley had no trouble garnering his party’s nomination. Foley also had a history of delivering for his constituents, having secured funding for infrastructure and for renovating Fairchild Air Force base. Foley was also instrumental in bringing the World’s Fair to Spokane, the flagship city of the district. Furthermore, Foley had served as Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, which was a significant boon to his rural constituents, especially wheat farmers.

Foley, however, represented a moderately conservative Congressional district in Eastern Washington, and his leadership position in the House may have been the only thing keeping the district from going Republican. In 1994, Foley was seen as an enabler of President Bill Clinton’s domestic agenda, having shepherded through the 1993 Budget Reconciliation Act (which included a tax increase), supporting the Clinton health care legislation, and supporting a federal ban on assault weapons.

There is precedent for members of Congress who, like Cantor, become national figures, while spending little time in their districts dealing with the parochial issues. Fore example, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA) spent much time lambasting the Democratic-Controlled House, and promoted a conservative insurrection in the House. Yet he spent little time in his district dealing with provincial issues. In a 1990 race that was on few political observers’ radar, Gingrich, the Republican Whip, defeated little-known Democratic challenger David Worley by just 983 votes. Had Worley been awarded funding from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he likely would have toppled Gingrich. The day after the election, a humbled Gingrich told the New York Times that he got the message from his constituents: “They want me to come home more often to pay more attention to local issue, and I’m going to do it.”

Two years later, just four years before he led the Republican Revolution of 1994 where the Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years, Gingrich was re-elected to his seat by just 987 votes. Much of Gingrich’s distinct was redrawn, forcing him to move to a new district. His Republican primary opponent, State Representative Heman Clarke, exploited Gingrich’s move to the district and made an issue of the 22 bad checks Gingrich had written on the House Bank.

House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL) was probably the most powerful House Speaker in American history. His moniker was “The Czar of the House.” He served concomitantly as House speaker and as Chairman of the House Committee on Rules, and garnered the power to personally appoint members to the committees. U.S. Senator George Norris (R-NE) mused that the national government “is divided into the Senate, the President, and the Speaker.” The conservative Cannon worked to keep the redoubtable progressive faction of the GOP off of important committees. However, in 1910, the progressives joined with the Democrats to dislodge Cannon from the rules committee, and Cannon subsequently lost the speakership when the Democrats took control of the House Chamber.

Two years later, with his title and power stripped from him by Frank O’Hair, who had never served beyond his town’s school board, defeated Cannon in his bid for re-election. Cannon came back however to defeat O’Hair in 1914, and served an additional four terms in the House.

Cannon’s successor as House Speaker was Democrat Champ Clarke of Missouri. Clarke was the early Democratic Frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1912, but lost the nomination to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.

Progressive Party nominee Theodore Roosevelt, a former Republican President, split the Republican vote, making it nearly impossible for Republican William Howard Taft to be re-elected. In 1918, Champ Clarke, serving as U.S. House Majority Leader, was swallowed up in the Republican tide and lost his seat to Probate Judge Theodore W. Hukriede.

Joe Martin, who had served as both House Speaker and alternatively as House Minority Leader for 20 years and who had presided over five Republican National Conventions, was ousted from House Leadership in 1959 by conservative Charles Halleck (R-IA). Halleck argued that Martin was too accommodating to the Democratic Leadership led by his friend, Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX). Yet Martin stayed in the House as a backbencher, and was eventually defeated for renomination in 1966 by Governors Councilor Margaret Heckler, who actually ran to Martin’s left in the Republican Primary.

Cannon, Clarke, and Martin went from being at the epicenter of national power to becoming former members of the U.S. Congress who could not even keep their respective seats.

The House is not the only Congressional chamber that has seen political figures rise nationally while losing support at home. J. William Fulbright (D-AR) was nearly a household name as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served in that position for 15 years, yet there was a feeling among his Arkansas constituents that he had become too ensconced in foreign affairs and had lost touch with home state issues. In 1974, the popular Governor Dale Bumpers, who sported a 91 percent job approval rating, defeated Fulbright in the Democratic Primary by over 30 percentage points. Bumpers won 71 out of the state’s 75 counties.

Similarly, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) in her first and only term as Senator accepted a job as Chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, (RCCC) which required her to barnstorm the country campaigning for Republican Senate Candidates. This Chairmanship is often a stepping-stone to Party Leader in the Senate. However, Dole spent just 33 days in North Carolina in 2005 and 2006, and her opponent for re-election, State Senator Kay Hagan, made sure voters were cognizant of that fact. Consequently, Hagan defeated Dole.

Governors with national ambitions have also seen the deleterious effects with their home state constituents as they take on a National Role. Massachusetts Governors Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney are perfect examples. Though Dukakis had been re-elected as Governor with 65.15 percent of the vote in 1986, he spent much of the next two years on the presidential campaign hustings. Unfortunately for Dukakis the Massachusetts economy tapered, and many residents thought Dukakis should have been more attentive to the state. Consequently, Dukakis, who lost the presidency in 1988, saw his poll numbers in Massachusetts plummet to just 19 percent.

Similarly, Mitt Romney, the once-potent electoral force, saw his poll numbers decline during his last two years in office, when, as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Romney spent an inordinate amount of time out of the state campaigning for Republican Governors and Gubernatorial candidates. In fact, he spent 212 days out of the state in 2006. Romney even made fun of his job as a Republican Governor of a Democratic state saying his job is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention. Romney left office with an unimpressive job approval rating of just 39 percent.

The lesson of the Eric Cantor episode is that when politicians spend time raising their national profile, they should not take for granted their electoral subsistence. They must not allow their national profiles to trump the jobs they were elected to do.


What’s in a Name? In Politics, Perhaps a Lot More Than One Might Think

May 6, 2014

The old saying goes “What’s in a name?” Actually, names can be very important in the political arena and have changed the course of American political history. In 1946, after entering a race for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, future President John F. Kennedy used a creative tactic to muster an […]

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Will the Carpetbagger Card be Effective Against Scott Brown in the New Hampshire U.S. Senate Race?

April 25, 2014

Former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has packed his truck and moved full-time to his former vacation home in Rye, New Hampshire. He is running for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in November. With Brown the putative favorite for the nomination, the general election will likely be a donnybrook. This […]

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Two Potential 2016 GOP Presidential Candidates Face Re-Election Hurdles

April 25, 2014

With the U.S. Congress suffering from single-digit job approval ratings, governors are likely to be in vogue as potential presidential candidates in 2016. Two swing state governors, John Kasich from Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, are believed to be seriously considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Both men are currently seeking re-election […]

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Political Insults: Cheap Shots or Do They Play an Important Role in American Politics?

April 25, 2014

U.S. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) had no problem publicly belittling Republican President and friend Gerald R. Ford. He said Ford was “worse than [Warren G.] Harding and [Herbert] Hoover put together.” Yet O’Neill and Ford had a friendly personal relationship. They often golfed together. Ford took O’Neill’s criticisms in stride, knowing that they […]

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John Boehner Is Not the First GOP House Leader to Experience Dissention Within His Own Party

March 19, 2014

John Boehner is experiencing a difficult tenure as U.S. house speaker. Boehner was re-elected to the post by his Republican colleagues with just 220 votes in 2013, just six more votes than the 214 necessary to be re-elected. Twelve members of Boehner’s party did not vote for him. The conservative Tea Party caucus within the […]

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Political Insults: Cheap Shots or Do They Play an Important Role in American Politics?

March 19, 2014

U.S. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) had no problem publicly belittling Republican President and friend Gerald R. Ford. He said Ford was “worse than [Warren G.] Harding and [Herbert] Hoover put together.” Yet O’Neill and Ford had a friendly personal relationship. They often golfed together. Ford took O’Neill’s criticisms in stride, knowing that they […]

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Worst Case Scenario for Hillary

January 30, 2014

California Governor Jerry Brown said he will not seek the Democratic nomination for President in 2016. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Other potential Democratic Presidential aspirants are not likely to seek the nomination should Hillary enter the race. On the surface, this may seem auspicious for Hillary. One by one, most […]

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Charlie Crist Is Not the First Politician to Ideologically Reinvent Himself

January 14, 2014

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL 1959-1969) observed “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” In American politics, it is not uncommon for politicians to shift their positions to align with the polls, and some undergo a dramatic ideological transformation. For […]

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