A single gaffe can ruin a presidential campaign. Take Howard Dean’s scream at the 2004 Iowa Caucus, or George McGovern saying he was “one thousand percent for [running mate] Tom Eagleton” in 1972. Even if statements are relatively subtle or innocuous, public backlash can be swift and merciless. Just ask Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign began with a gaffe. In his campaign announcement speech, he referred to illegal Mexican immigrants as rapists. That quote, as displayed below, has been played over and over again in the media:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best; they’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
The backlash that followed was unbelievable, with Univision, Macy’s and other companies that have longstanding ties with Trump dropping their business associations with the real estate mogul. Faced with such scrutiny, most candidates would have backed off, apologized, and realized that their presidential aspirations were likely over.
Trump’s strategy, however, has been to double-down on any criticism, not only refusing to apologize but relentlessly hammering his ridiculous ideas into the minds of voters with his inescapable media presence.
“I will win the Hispanic vote,” Trump has since said, despite consistent protests from members of the Latino-American community and an unverified Twitter threat from escaped Mexican drug lord El Chapo.
The latest statement to cause hysteria among both politicians and members of the media was Trump’s claim that Sen. John McCain is “not a war hero.” Trump claims he’s dissatisfied with McCain’s treatment of veterans (“I will fix VA quickly,” Trump tweeted), but his statement was mostly a reaction to McCain calling those that showed up to the Trump immigration rally in Phoenix as “crazies.”
“He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” Trump said about McCain. Trump’s campaign has been riddled with statements that, if spoken by any other candidate, would be considered career-ending gaffes.
If any other Republican candidate criticized the 2008 nominee so brashly, they’d essentially be committing campaign suicide. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, called Trump’s comments “an insult to all POWs” and claimed that he should be disqualified from the race. Rick Perry said Trump’s statement made him “unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.” Other candidates have been quick to chime in with their own opinions that McCain is, indeed, a “war hero.”
The irony of Trump’s approach to his 2016 campaign is that all of his gaffes are actually having the opposite effect than what pundits might expect: he’s leading in the polls. According to Real Clear Politics, Trump has nearly tied Jeb Bush as the leading Republican candidate. Trump has 15 percent of the vote, Bush has 15.5 percent. A Fox News poll found Trump in the lead with 18 percent of the vote. Especially in such a crowded GOP field, those numbers are significant. It’s clear that voters are attracted to Trump’s seemingly improvised commentary on controversial issues, as well as his refusal to apologize (and his tendency to, instead, double-down on whatever outrageous statement he’s made). Whether or not Trump’s campaign is a serious political endeavor or an outlandish attempt at “entertainment” (as the Huffington Post has categorized it), the truth is that it’s successful. Trump has captivated the attention of a nation, and at least for now he’s secured the vote of a significant amount of Republicans. Although many campaigns have been de-railed by a single gaffe (even something as innocent as Howard Dean’s overexcited scream), Trump’s campaign has been powered almost entirely by gaffes.
Perhaps people are attracted to his honesty and refusal to apologize despite the pressure of an overly politically correct environment. Perhaps people believe in what he’s saying. It’s difficult to determine how long Trump will be able to sustain his popularity, but it’s clear that he has no intention of letting his words take him out of the political spotlight.