The 5 worst gaffes of the 2012 election

Next Tuesday, U.S. voters determine their next president, mercifully ending an epic election season that included its fair share of memorable PR blunders.


Next Tuesday, millions of Americans will head to their local polling places to select the next president of the United States.

It’s about time. We’ve been subjected to a two-year campaign in which the candidates have been on our television screens for hundreds of hours. Most of those hours have been unremarkable—but a few memorable moments turned into PR disasters for the campaigns.

5. President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” and Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people”

I’m judging these as equal gaffes, mostly because both lines were taken out of context by political opponents.

Opponents accused President Obama of saying that small business owners didn’t build their own businesses but that government did. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that business owners didn’t build the roads that led customers to their doors or the Internet they use to conduct business.)

Opponents accused Gov. Romney of saying that he liked to fire people. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that he liked being able to cancel policies from bad health insurance companies.)

Regardless, both lines were damaging to both candidates. And it proves that in this media age, you can’t afford to commit the deadly seven-second stray.

4. Herman Cain draws a blank on Libya

We’ve all had that terrible moment when we’ve gone completely blank. Unfortunately for Herman Cain, his moment was caught on video. When he was asked why he opposed President Obama’s policy in Libya, let’s just say he struggled to come up with an answer.

3. Mitt Romney’s secret “47 Percent” video

At a May fundraiser, Mitt Romney shared his views of President Obama’s voters in a secretly filmed video that was later leaked to the liberal Mother Jones magazine. In the video, Mr. Romney, said:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it….My job is not to worry about those people.”

The video was a disaster for Romney’s campaign, taking them far off their desired messages just two months before Election Day.

2. President Obama’s first debate

In terms of sheer political impact, little comes close to President Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate. As Mitt Romney attacked his record, Mr. Obama responded without any discernible passion, instead making meandering points full of “uhhhs.”

As a result, Gov. Romney delivered a humiliating thumping to the president, who sank in the polls almost immediately. If President Obama loses next Tuesday, historians will cite this debate as a major reason why. If he wins, it will be a lot closer than it otherwise could have been.

This media disaster ranks number two for only one reason: This list is intended to look at short media moments, not entire debates. But this debate was just too impactful to ignore.

The video below is an edited compilation of some of Mr. Obama’s many “uhhhs.” It’s emblematic of how hesitant and unfocused he was throughout the debate.

1. Rick Perry’s infamous “Oops”

During a Republican primary debate in November 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry confidently declared that he would eliminate three government agencies. Unfortunately for him, he promptly forgot what they were.

For 47 painful seconds, Mr. Perry tried to recall the third agency he would eliminate. He finally gave up, shrugged his shoulders, and lamely said, “Oops.” That one moment likely sank any remaining chances Perry had of winning the nomination. In terms of an immediate and spectacular self-immolation, nothing came even close.

To see five more terrible gaffes from the 2012 presidential election, visit the Mr. Media Training blog.

Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @MrMediaTraining.

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