Not a gaffe

Unlike my co-bloggers here, here, here, I would not label Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks as a gaffe. To my ear, a “gaffe” is some silly little remark or misstatement.

In this case, it’s not that Romney said something embarrassing and mistaken, it’s that he said something very deliberately that corresponds to an unpopular position. And it wasn’t just one offhand remark, it was an entire speech.

A comparable statement would be Walter Mondale’s statement that he would raise people’s taxes.

The amazing thing about Mondale’s speech is that, after he says he’ll raise taxes, the crowd cheers. Of course, it was a partisan crowd.

Similarly, Romney’s crowd seemed to have no problem with his “47%” remark.

Neither Romney’s nor Mondale’s speeches were “gaffes.” They were clear, if unfortunate, statements of the candidates’ positions. All too clear, in both cases.

P.S. Yes, I recognize that “gaffe” is not a precisely defined term. What I’m pushing against is the implication that statements such as Romney’s (or Mondale’s) are silly public relations mistakes. I think they represent real tensions between the views of the candidate’s core supporters and the general population.

10 Responses to Not a gaffe

  1. John Sides September 24, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Andy: C’mon, now. I used scare quotes throughout in my first post on this “gaffe.”

  2. Rebecca September 25, 2012 at 12:34 am #

    Andrew, sometimes a gaffe is “some silly little remark or misstatement”, but I disagree that this is the case with Romney and the 47%. This could be considered a Kinsley Gaffe: When a political gaffe reveals some truth that a politician didn’t intend to admit.

    • Andrew Gelman September 25, 2012 at 7:21 am #


      No, Romney’s statement was actually false.

      • Eric September 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

        I think Rebecca means it reveals some truth about what Romney really thinks or believes.

  3. Kylopod September 25, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    You’re leaving out the fact that Romney said this in a video that wasn’t supposed to go public–it’s roughly the equivalent of not knowing the mic was on. The Mondale remark, on the other hand, was part of Mondale’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention! Not exactly an apt comparison.

    I’m not a fan of the word “gaffe” (it tends to lump together many different things candidates do, from the trivial to the substantial), but I’d say Romney’s “47%” remark in a leaked video fits the basic definition.

  4. ThePoliticalOmnivore September 25, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I said on the TLP Blog–which you should read, it’s excellent–( that Romney’s problem was not specifically that it was a “gaffe”–it certainly wasn’t a miss-speak. Yes, it was factually wrong–and yes, if Romney thought carefully about it he might not have said it the same way–but it was cheered as it stood as true by (many) parts of the right’s blogosphere.

    The problem was that he was speaking out of context: the way one speaks to wealthy donors is a different kind of speech than the way one talks in a massive auditorium. The message is the same and Romney has had it all along: he will carry the water for the GOP’s Base. Whatever it takes. Whether he believes it or not. This message–about makers and takers–was ingrained into the party when he chose Ryan as the nominee and the specific percentiles are just details.

    But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake. When the video came out it released speech from one “ecosystem” (private wealthy Boca Raton donors) to “the wild” and the results are predictable: fire-storm. ( My take: )

    • Andrew Gelman September 25, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

      I think that blog is interesting but irritating.

      • ThePoliticalOmnivore September 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

        I’m quite certain TLP would be glad to hear it 🙂

  5. Acilius September 25, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    My suspicion is that this speech and the many other remarks in which Mr Romney has highlighted his affiliation with the very richest people in the USA are part of a deliberate marketing strategy on his part. He wants to establish his candidacy as a luxury brand. Just as consumers buy luxury products in order to make themselves feel rich, so he may hope that voters will choose him in pursuit of the same sensation. That strategy may not seem likely to succeed, but given his background, his platform, and the overall direction the Republican Party has been heading in recent years, it is not obvious that any other coherent strategy is available to Mr Romney at this point.

  6. Phil November 2, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    You say ‘To my ear, a “gaffe” is some silly little remark or misstatement’ but that’s a narrower definition than most people use. I agree that it is unusual to call a whole speech a gaffe but I don’t think it’s a misuse of the term.

    Rebecca suggests, and Eric and Kylopod may agree, that Romney made a “Kinsley gaffe” by accidentally revealing the truth about his feelings towards about half of the electorate. Although I agree that that’s possible, I think it’s unlikely; I suspect that if we had video of Romney speaking off the record to other groups, he would say a different thing to each (as would any politician). Whether this video represents Romney’s real attitudes is anybody’s guess. But it is clearly loose talk that is politically damaging and that he wouldn’t have said if he’d thought about the consequences, so it’s a gaffe. It’s just not necessarily a Kinsley gaffe.