What makes a political gaffe fatal to a campaign?

Cameras at the RNC
Journalists and media work during the third day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Fla.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week's news cycle was dominated by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's comments made earlier this year about the 47 percent of Americans he described as people "who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them."

It wasn't the first gaffe to make news this political cycle. President Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" comment stirred up anger among business owners and forced the president to try and clarify his statements.

So why are some gaffes fatal — think the "Dean Scream" in 2004 — and others not?

"I believe these things, for them to be truly game-changing, they have to be something that taps into a perspective that people had previously," said Steve Lombardo, global CEO of Edelman Berland, on The Daily Circuit Thursday. He was the senior research and communications advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008.

Both of the gaffes were damaging for the candidates for that reason, he said. Romney's comment fed into a concern previously expressed by voters during the campaign.

"It solidified a pre-conceived notion that people had that this guy, Mitt Romney, is a rich person who is only looking out for rich people," Lombardo said.

In the case of Obama's gaffe, voters were already questioning his views on the role of government, he said.

"It sort of fit with the apprehension that I think a lot of voters have, swing voters as well as conservatives, that the president is not really a friend of business and really does believe government is the answer," Lambardo said.

Basil Smikle, political strategist and adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, also joined the discussion. He said a gaffe can be deadly to a campaign when it tears apart the well-crafted image created during an election season.

"When you're in a sense betraying the image you've been projecting through the campaign; that really matters," he said. "It stays in the media cycle when that gaffe really does undermine that well-honed message and brand and it seems the person you've been to voters for all this time is somehow fake and phony."

Julia, a caller from Minneapolis, blames the media for the attention gaffes receive.

"I feel the media spends almost an unfortunate time on these gaffes," she said. "There are so many really serious issues that our country is facing, particularly right now as we near the election ... As a voter, I don't really care if they make this mist ake. I really want to know what they are really going to do to solve these major problems."

Unfortunately, this is part of the new 24-hour news cycle and the circulation of information on social media, Smikle said.

"You're not hearing a lot of specifics because they are very careful not to give a lot," he said. "Candidates are being much more circumspect, they are being so very careful right now to make sure they don't say anything that's going to come back to hurt them."

When it comes down to the ultimate proof of a campaign-killing gaffe, Smikle said it's about defending the indefensible. People are expected to stand up for their choices, from the cars they drive, to the cities they live in and the candidates they vote for.

"You in many ways have to defend those choices," he said. "If it's hard for you to do that, it means you're having second thoughts... If as a voter it's hard for you to defend the gaffe or defend a position that your candidate has taken, it's going to be hard for you to go and pull the lever when it's time to vote."

What political gaffes stuck with you? Comment on the blog.

MPR News' Kryssy Pease contributed to this report.

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