One way to evaluate the claim that gaffes affect election outcomes is by considering recent history. Indeed, Cillizza cites two examples as evidence in his most recent piece (the second was also cited by Tumulty): John Kerry’s March 2004 statement that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it,” and John McCain’s statement, in the early stages of the financial crisis in September 2008, that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” However, it’s not at all clear that the statements in question were the reason that the campaigns turned out as they did, rather than the winning candidates’ underlying advantages in the campaign fundamentals. Both George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008 performed approximately as well as election forecasting models expected, which suggests that these campaign events had limited influence.
Moreover, the effect of gaffes is not always clear even when they take place in high-profile presidential debates. As UNC political scientist James Stimson points out in his book Tides of Consent, Gerald Ford actually gained ground on Jimmy Carter after a widely-criticized gaffe in which he falsely said Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union during a 1976 debate.
The underlying problem—and the biggest reason that gaffes are perpetually hyped by the media in the absence of evidence that they matter to voters—is that, despite all the cutbacks in journalism, too many reporters are chasing too few stories at this point in the presidential campaign. The incentives for perverse coverage are especially strong when little other news is being made. Editors should consider alternative approaches. Why not devote more resources to investigations, enterprise stories, and down-ballot races, and reduce the number of reporters covering the minutiae of the presidential campaign? We, the readers, will be just fine without them.