Further Evidence That Voters Don’t Pay Attention To Gaffes

Voters don't seem all that interesting in the things that the political media becomes obsessed with.

Two weeks ago at a Friday press conference focused principally on the economy, President Obama commented that the private sector was “doing fine,” a comment that pundits on both sides of the aisle jumped on almost immediate as a mistake on the President’s part. The White House seemed to recognize the mistake that had been made given that the President was walking the comment back just a few hours later, and by the following week the speculation had turned to whether or not the President’s comments would hurt him electorally.  This was just the latest in a running series of campaign moments we’ve seen since January that became the focus of intense media attention. Another example would be the comments by Obama’s spokesperson that compared the Primary and General Election campaigns to shaking an Etch-A-Sketch, a comment which led to several days of Etch-A-Sketch related commentary by Romney’s rivals in the GOP and in the Obama campaign. I was skeptical of the relevance of the entire controversy, and as it turned out subsequent polls indicated that voters hadn’t really paid any attention to the story.

Now, it appears that the same is true of Obama’s “doing fine” remark:

President Obama’s remark in a press conference earlier this month that the private sector was “doing fine” did not register with a majority of Americans, a recent poll suggests.

According to a YouGov poll conducted a week after the presser, 47 percent of respondents correctly identify “doing fine” as the way Obama described the private sector. On the other hand, 53 percent were either totally unfamiliar with the comment or identified the wrong phrase.

Republicans immediately pounced on Obama’s gaffe as evidence that he was out of touch with the electorate — and the conventional Beltway wisdom was that the remark would come back to hurt Obama, despite the fact that he almost immediately walked it back.

George Washington University Political Science Professor John Sides, who was involved in creating the poll, commented on his blog:

What this survey makes clear is that even after national headlines, some kinds of stories just don’t register to busy Americans who have more things to do than follow every jot and tittle of the news. Which is one reason why the attention devoted to gaffes dwarfs their actual impact at the ballot box.

Sides goes on to note, though, that a pro-Romney SuperPAC and Americans For Prosperity are in the process of putting together a multimillion dollar ad buy that will focus on the President’s “doing fine” remarks, so one has to wonder whether public awareness of the comments will increase after voters have been exposed to several weeks or more of television commercials repeating the comment over and over again. Given that, Sides says he intends to re-poll the question in about a month to see if there’s been any change.  Of course, there are actually two questions to ask here. The first is whether people are aware of the comment, and right now we know that more than 50% of those surveyed were not. The second is what impact that comment may have on who the respondents may vote for. Presently, the same poll has Obama and Romney tied at 44% so it’s not clear that the remarks have had much of an impact even on those people who have heard them and I suspect that will remain true when more people become aware of the remarks.

At the time of Obama’s “just fine” comment I said this:

Whether it’s these comments by Obama and Romney, the Etch-A-Sketch comment by one of Romney’s campaign spokespersons, or the comments that Romney made himself (at least one of which was taken out of context), the political press spends far too much time concentrating on trivial matters like this that really don’t have anything to do with the issues at stake in the election. It’s something that activists on both sides revel in as well. For example, you still hear conservatives bringing up Obama’s “57 states” comment, something that was obviously the result of Obama being caught at a time when he was likely exhausted from a grueling campaign schedule. People tend to say dumb things when they’re tired, or when they’re speaking off the cuff, and the fact that they do doesn’t really tell us much of anything about what kind of President they would be or where they stand on the major issues of the day. As I’ve said numerous times before, the media does us all a disservice when it concentrates on irrelevancies like this. When they do, they end up creating a story out of something that really shouldn’t matter simply by talking about it.

One would think that pundits would learn this lesson at some point. However when you have to fill up air time with meaningless talking head blather, you tend to find it necessary to focus on the irrelevancies rather than the substances. Thankfully, the voters don’t seem to be paying much attention to it all.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. mattb says:


    You should know by now that as with vetting and obvious conspiracies like Fast and Furious, it’s not that the public doesn’t care about gaffes, its there is a protective bubble formed by the Lame-Stream Media to protect the president and all other corrupt demo-commie-fascist-librals.

    If only the MSM actually reported these cases instead of burying them, people would of course care.

    Just like they cared and immediately abandoned Romney after the MSM relentlessly reported on his various gaffes and youthful indiscretions. Oh wait, in those cases, despite the best efforts of the MSM, the People — the vast majority of (real) Americans, who we all know are overwhelming conservative — saw through the distortion efforts and came to the right conclusions.

    Of course, if they reach the same conclusions about Obama’s gaffes, then they are making the wrong conclusion. Or they’re being led astray. Or they really aren’t true Americans.

    And in a few years time, I’m sure that many Dems will make the same argument (as they did about a number of GWB gaffes and “under reported” stories).

  2. mattb says:

    One serious note:

    One would think that pundits would learn this lesson at some point. However when you have to fill up air time with meaningless talking head blather, you tend to find it necessary to focus on the irrelevancies rather than the substances.

    The issue is that pundits are not hired because they say correct things. They get asked back on shows, or given columns, because they express a viewpoint that a given audience wants to hear.

    In fact, professionally, it’s fundamentally against a pundits interest to challenge their audience. And often there is little support for these efforts by their own fellows. Two classic examples are what happened when Jim Manzi dared suggest that there is an overwhelming amount of Scientific Evidence for Climate Change, or when David Frum became disenfranchised with aspects of movement conservatism.

    This is also why Dick Morris and Bill Kristol (among others) can be so far off on most of their predictions but still get work. Ditto the ‘stache at the NYTimes.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Voters live on Main Street, they work hard for their livings, and they spend their weekends at ballparks and amusement parks with their kids.

    The political media lives in SoHo, SoMa, and in Georgetown, they haven’t worked a hard day in their lives, and they spend their weekends drinking Skyy and Grey Goose at cocktail parties, interacting with other members of the punditocracy and the faux cognescenti.

    The disconnect is inevitable.

  4. rudderpedals says:

    Edit-induced “gaffes” don’t have legs? You don’t say.

    Etch a Sketch reinforces the widely held impression that Romney will say anything to get elected. That’s not going away.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    Don’t worry, whether or not these “gaffes” do or do not register in current polling, you can be sure all it will be a part of the post-convention campaign narrative.

    Both campaigns will be awash with money and there is a lot of air time that has to be filled.

    People like to say that advertising has no effect, primarily because people like to believe that they cannot be influenced by some thing as base as political advertising. However, I believe that hundreds of millions of dollars (billions?) will be spent by both parties for good reason – it is the best way to reach the 70 million eligible voters who did not vote in 2008.

  6. Drew says:

    I think the 57 state “exhaustion” observation is fair. (woudth that the media have an even hand on that…..can you spell patater….)

    But I really wonder if the “private sector doing fine” comment is an insight into core beliefs in an unguarded moment, or an innocuous gaffe. A lot of mind reading goes on in these blogs, so I’m just going to stop.

    As for the public, don’t confuse I don’t cae with I wasn’t paying attention.

  7. Drew,

    Having worked on campaigns in the past I can definitely say that candidates get exhausted and say things they don’t mean to, and that’s only based at working on things no higher than a race for Congress. So, I give Obama a pass on the 57 states thing.

    The “doing fine” thing? Dumb. If he’d said, say, “the private sector has been adding jobs” he’d have been correct and it would have been hard for anyone to make hay out of it. Not to say they would not have tried, of course.

  8. mattb says:


    But I really wonder if the “private sector doing fine” comment is an insight into core beliefs in an unguarded moment

    Ant that’s the overall point/problem that leads to the MSM disconnect on both sides…

    Drew is predisposed to believe the Democrats in general and Obama specifically hate capitalism/private industry. So therefore every “gaffe” is assumed to be a rare glimpse into the true individual (that they alone see).

    And since they assume that they have seen “the Real Obama,” they immediately cannot understand how everyone else didn’t see the same thing. The only explanation is that people didn’t get to see that clip (under reported) or that the packaging of the clip explained away the gaffe (media being in the bag for given politician).

    It takes a rare individual to actually try and look at their underlying supposition (in this case that Obama hates capitalism/private enterprise) and ask if that has any real basis in fact. It’s much easier to blame the media and/or sheeple.

  9. Tillman says:

    one has to wonder whether public awareness of the comments will increase after voters have been exposed to several weeks or more of television commercials repeating the comment over and over again.

    It’s already getting annoying here in NC. Restore Our Future and Americans For Prosperity have been peppering Jeopardy with “the private sector is doing fine” and a scary deep voice talking about how Obama’s out of touch.

    I’ll never understand how blatantly propagandistic political advertising works.