Why Trump’s latest gaffe only matters to political tragics

The Media party are making much of Trump’s latest gaffe where he said 7/11 instead of 9/11.

Trump himself doesn’t care and probably won’t even address it, and here is why.

As in previous elections, journalists have paid inordinate attention to all the candidates’ so-called gaffes, and Trump is a veritable gaffe factory. But none of the outrageous things he says or does seem to have much of an impact at the polls. Why is he immune?

Pundits have suggested that this is something special about Trump — a testament to his Teflon-like durability. But most people simply don’t follow politics closely enough for gaffes to matter. This doesn’t mean that they are stupid — in fact, I would argue that a Pennsylvania voter whose primary falls in late April is acting very rationally when he chooses to skip the media’s frantic coverage of the Iowa caucuses in January (after all, it’s quite plausible that the candidates who won Iowa won’t even be in the race by the time he casts his ballot). But it does mean that, despite journalists’ obsession with candidates’ missteps, coverage of these mistakes only reaches a small number of voters.

In reality, then, there’s nothing special about Donald Trump’s ability to shrug off his mistakes: Political scientists have seen this dynamic at play before. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck demonstrate in their book on the 2012 election, The Gamble, the truth is that this immunity is the rule, not the exception. Romney’s “47%” comment and Obama’s “You didn’t build that” misstep produced no real movement in the polls, despite the attention they received in the media.  

Indeed, most so-called gaffes matter very little in the long term. Most of the people who are paying attention enough to notice them have already made up their minds, and those who could potentially be swayed by a slip-up simply don’t follow politics closely enough to have heard about them. This is not to say that some of Trump’s missteps won’t come back to haunt him in the form of Democratic-sponsored ads in the general election, but in the short term, the lesson is that Trump is special, not because his gaffes don’t matter, but because he realizes his gaffes don’t matter—and takes full advantage of that fact.

An important corollary: Because many people aren’t paying close attention to politics, the volume of coverage that a candidate receives may shape their attitudes just as much as the content of this coverage. The amount of media coverage Trump has received dwarfs that of other Republican candidates. It’s easy to see why: His penchant for outrageous statements makes him a journalist’s dream. But this near-constant coverage sends a message to voters, especially those paying only tangential attention to the race: Trump is a viable candidate worth serious consideration.

Gaffes only matter to political tragics. Most people understand that when speaking people make mistakes. It is only the Media party and partisans who care and make a great deal out of it.

Sometimes it can be debilitating, like David Cunliffe’s sorry for being a man episode. But usually a small mis-speaking matters not one bit.




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  • Dr Wang

    Reminds me of Helen Clark’s classic gaff during her last tv election debates before she finally got the boot: “….we have to celebrate the c**t culture in our country…” (perhaps more a Freudian slip than a gaff).

    MSM totally ignored it, but had Key tripped over his tongue and said it we would never have heard the end of it (eg his 3-way handshake).

    It’s a sign of the biased political tragics in the MSM driving to dictate the narrative that suits them when they labour these points, and they end up looking petty and lightweight – by ignoring the big issues like policies etc instead trying to score points from small errors.

  • Seriously?

    I think Trump is dangerous, but this “gaffe” is nothing more than something to laugh at.

    Who doesn’t make such a slip from time to time, and any suggestion he was making light of 9/11 or didn’t actually know the relevant date is just silly.

    If you want to bag him he has provided plenty of reason to do so, but this is nothing more than a bit of a laugh.

  • Crowgirl

    Trump is great at recognising this stuff – when he tweeted about Heidi Cruz a few weeks back and got taken to task over it he just issued the briefest of Mea culpas -“yeah it was a mistake, and if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t”. No explanation, no apology and no more oxygen for this issue. End of.

  • Bluemanning

    Trump has won New York. NY Times

  • Keanne Lawrence

    How many could match the verbal output of DT and not make slip of the lip? It might be an added bit of exposure to confirm the human side for swing voters. Along with a strong desire for a change of political direction more are liking where he is heading.

  • biscuit barrel

    I was watching ‘Oldstory’ when they run this clip. It was so ludicrous followed by those paragons of virtue pulling faces, HDPA was the worst. Ha

  • Observer

    What is more interesting is how the media ignore Obama’s gaffes. “All 57 states”, speaking “Austrian”, spelling Ohio Oiho. Michael Ramirez had a great editorial about this blatant bias.