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In every election cycle, voters witness the spectacle of an underdog candidate challenging an incumbent elected official to participate in a series of debates. This is usually a starting bid, with the underdog hoping the incumbent will engage in at least one debate.

A debate is an opportunity for a challenger to share the same stage with an incumbent. For the incumbent, a debate can usually only have deleterious effects upon his/her respective candidacy. If the incumbent does not appear sharp and relevant, voters may start to question whether the incumbent has been in office too long. If the challenger impresses, donations could swarm into the challenger’s campaign warchest. Of course, to effectuate a debate, a challenger with little name recognition who is trailing badly in the polls, must resort to creative tactics to force a debate.

In 1982, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was a leading candidate for the Presidential nomination in 1984. His senatorial re-election campaign was believed to be pro forma. Republican Senatorial nominee Ray Shamie, a businessman and political neophyte, succeeded in getting Kennedy to agree to a debate. He pointed out that in 1980, when Kennedy had run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he had called on President Jimmy Carter to debate him. Ingeniously, the Shamie campaign exploited Kennedy’s past demand. The Shamie campaign spent much of its time garnering free media attention by offering a cash reward to anyone who could persuade Kennedy to debate Shamie. The campaign hired an airplane to pull a banner that read: ”$10,000 Reward – Get Ted Kennedy to Debate Ray Shamie.” The airplane flew around the country over large populations. Shamie’s antics in trying to get Kennedy to debate became a national story, and finally Kennedy agreed to a debate with Shamie. The $10,000 reward went to the Cardinal Cushing School and Training Center for Special Needs Students located in Hanover, Massachusetts. While Kennedy easily won re-election, Shamie mustered a respectable 38.26% of the vote in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.

In 1990, U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN) appeared to be a shoe-in for re-election. His campaign had raised a redoubtable $6 million and it appeared he would face only token opposition and coast to re-election. The Democratic nominee was Paul Wellstone, an obscure Political Science Professor at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Political consultant Bill Hillsman engineered a brilliant advertising campaign, wherein Wellstone tried to find Boschwitz by going to his campaign and state offices, asking staffers where Boschwitz was. When they told him he was not there, Wellstone asked the staffers to tell Boschwitz he would like to debate him. Wellstone also interviewed Minnesota residents, who told him how debates were healthy for the political process. Using the interviews, Wellstone developed an advertising campaign which garnered national attention, precipitously increasing Wellstone’s name recognition and forcing Boschwitz to agree to multiple debates. That year, Wellstone scored one of the biggest upsets in the country, defeating the once near immutable Boschwitz. In fact, Wellstone was the only Democrat to defeat an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator that year.

In 1994, U.S. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA), in his quest to become the first Republican House Speaker in forty years, spent little time in his Congressional District. Instead, Gingrich barnstormed the nation, campaigning for Republican Congressional candidates in 125 other districts. Gingrich refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Ben Jones, a former U.S. Representative. Jones traveled to Gingrich’s campaign stops around the country, trying to get to meet Gingrich and demand that he come back home to Georgia to debate. At one stop, Jones brought bloodhounds. However, Jones could not get close enough to Gingrich to confront him about participating in a debate. Jones lost the race by over 25 percentage points.

In 2012, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) concomitantly sought re-election to his House seat and election to the Vice Presidency as Republican Mitt Romney’s runningmate. Ryan did not actively campaign for re-election or debate his Congressional opponent, Democrat Ron Zerban. Zerban tried to get political mileage by appearing in Danville, Kentucky the day a Vice Presidential debate between Ryan and Democrat Joe Biden was scheduled to be held. Though Zerban could not shame Ryan into debating him, his Danville appearances resulted in Zerban accruing lots of free local and national media attention and effectuated a cash infusion to Zerban’s coffers. In fact, Zerban raised $2.1 million. Zerban held Ryan to just 54.9% of the vote, the lowest percentage of any of Ryan’s eight Congressional races.

In 2014, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, well ahead in the polls, did not debate his three opponents. While he was safely re-elected, supporters of his opponents had fun with Cornett’s absence. At one debate, at the Fairview Missionary Baptist Church, a man seated in the front row sporting a chicken suit made local headlines by clucking: “Why won’t Mick debate?”

During this election cycle, we will likely see more creative tactics employed by hapless challengers to force their incumbent opponents to debate. The incumbents will most likely agree to just one debate, try to say as little as possible, speak in platitudes and not even mention their opponents by name.

Of course, for a challenger to score a debate does not mean the debate will garner the requisite attention sought, and could in fact result in a debate with very few television viewers. Sometimes bad luck and bad timing can also play a role. For example, in 1986, popular Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis afforded his Republican challenger, George Kariotis, one debate. The debate was scheduled to be held on the day after the last game of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. However, the Seventh game was rained out and re-scheduled for the next day. Consequently, while about 1.5 million households in the Boston media market turned their television sets to the game, only about 46,000 viewers watched the debate. In good humor, Kariotis said in his concession speech, after pocketing just 31.2% of the vote: “In fairness to Mike, I should clear up something. He was criticized, I think, for giving me only one televised debate during the seventh game of the World Series [Between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets]. I should point out that that was really his second choice; his first choice was tomorrow.” (The day after the election)

It is a harrowing task for underdog challengers to force an entrenched incumbent to debate. The incumbent has little to gain and much to lose. However, sometimes the challenger can muster media attention by using creative, imaginative, outside-the-box tactics. Even if the incumbent does not agree to debate, the free media attention for the challenger can enhance his/her name recognition and create a narrative of a feisty underdog challenger who creatively pursues the entrenched incumbent.

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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.”

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Eric Cantor Is Not the First National Political Figure to Lose His Congressional Seat

June 17, 2014

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 […]

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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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