Joe Biden is prone to gaffes but voters don’t seem to care
Facing scrutiny for a recent string of gaffes on the campaign trail, former Vice President Joe Biden has been unapologetic in defending his propensity to show some latitude with his language: His slip ups, he says, are innocuous mistakes that simply don’t matter.
It’s an argument that seems to be good enough for voters, at least for the time being.
He’s maintained solid leads in nearly every early voting state and national poll of likely Democratic voters since entering the race, suggesting his rhetorical fumbles aren’t a significant issue with a Democratic electorate that appears to have taken to his argument that he’s best suited to beat President Trump.
“I think it’s fair to go after a political figure for anything. Okay? I mean we’re — we stand up and that comes with the territory,” Biden said in an interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert Wednesday. “But here’s the deal. Any gaffe that I have made — and I’ve made gaffes just like any politician I know has — have been not about a substantive issue.”
Biden was even more pointed in a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, when he suggested his gaffes were small potatoes compared to the frequency and substance of the false and misleading claims made by Trump (more than 12,000 since the start of his presidency, according to fact checkers at the Washington Post).
“As long as they compare me to Donald Trump, it’s a good thing,” Biden said. “I tell the truth. It’s a big difference.”
Recent statements draw scrutiny
Despite Biden’s efforts to downplay the issue, the former vice president — who dubbed himself a “gaffe machine” prior to announcing his candidacy — has faced scrutiny in recent weeks for a series of miscues of the tongue.
More: Biden jokes about his gaffes on Stephen Colbert’s show, but argues they aren’t ‘substantive’
More: Biden responds to criticism of war story gaffe: ‘The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making’
During a recent stop in Hanover, N.H., Biden conflated a series of stories about interactions with U.S. service members as he bungled an attempt to highlight the selflessness of American troops.
Seemingly confused about which New England state he was visiting, Biden last month complimented Granite State residents about the beauty of Vermont.
Last month, he mistakenly recounted an emotional meeting with teens of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when he was vice president. (Mike Pence was vice president at the time of the 2018 mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida, high school. Biden did meet with the teens but it occurred after he served as vice president.)
The vice president also faced tough headlines after he said at a campaign forum that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” before quickly adding, “Wealthy kids. Black kids. Asian kids.” And in a rousing speech at the Iowa State Fair last month, he raised eyebrows when he intoned at the close of his speech “we choose truth over facts.”
More: 2020 Democrats: Climate change comes off the backburner as White House hopefuls take on President Trump
‘Voters could give less than a hoot’
While the so-called gaffes have brought negative headlines, Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, counters that the average voter simply doesn’t care about them. A whopping eighty-six percent of likely Democratic voters thought Biden could “probably” or “definitely” beat Trump, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Time poll published in June. Democrats surveyed show a higher level of confidence in Biden beating the president than any other Democratic candidate.
“The press is obsessed with this but the voters could give less of a hoot about it,” said Shrum, who is now the director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, which oversees the poll.
In interviews in Iowa last month, caucusgoers in Iowa downplayed the significance of Biden’s rhetorical stumbles.
Tim Weil, a 66-year-old farmer from Prole, Iowa, who attended a recent Biden campaign event, called the gaffes “a worry, but very minor.”
“You can tell that he’s a very highly intelligent person who thinks rationally,” Weil said. “It’s just a quirk that he’s prone to slip-ups like that. It’s not a big deal.”
Others suggested criticizing Biden for misspeaking is unfair, given Trump’s stream of controversial remarks and misstatements of facts.
“To me, that’s nothing. Compare him to what we’re dealing with now. That, to me, is the problem. Not a gaffe here and there,” said Kelly Tracy, 50, of Johnston, Iowa, who will serve as a precinct captain for Biden during the first-of-nation caucuses in the Hawkeye state.
A line of attack from Republicans
Should the polls hold up for Biden — who has repeatedly intoned that “words matter” on the campaign trail to discredit Trump — Republicans have signaled they plan to intensify attacks against him on the issue and have already attempted to paint the former vice president as a doddering old man.
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity on Thursday polled his radio audience on their favorite Biden misstatement.
President Trump responded to reporters when asked about a recent speaking flub — he mistakenly referred to a mass shooting in Dayton last month as happening in Toledo — with a barb that suggested he was questioning Biden’s mental acuity. “Joe Biden doesn’t have it.”
And Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a Fox News interview Thursday that Biden’s mounting flubs should raise concerns for voters.
“He has forgotten which state he is in, he forgot which president he worked for, he’s made up stories,” she said. “It’s time after time after time these gaffes are adding up. It raises questions about, is he ready for this presidency?”
Tim Lindberg, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said he was skeptical that Biden’s gaffes will have any impact on whether Biden emerges as the Democratic nominee. Throughout his political career, Biden has shown a propensity for letting his mouth sometimes get ahead of him, a brashness that’s for better or worse become part of his brand as a politician.
Eastland and Talmadge: Joe Biden courts black voters as segregationist flap lingers
“The only time so far in the campaign where it’s really caused a problem for him is when he spoke about segregationist senators,” said Lindberg, referring to Biden facing rebukes from Democratic rivals after he alluded to his ability to work with Democratic segregationist senators early in his career. Biden was trying to make a point about lost civility in national politics.
In his unsuccessful run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden faced criticism after he referred to his then-rival Barack Obama as the “first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
At the 2010 White House signing ceremony for Obama’s signature health care law, a microphone picked up Biden using a curse word to stress the political gravity of the moment.
Still, it could be useful for Trump to highlight Biden’s gaffes despite the thousands of questionable statements Trump has made in less than three years in office.
“The value for Trump could be with appealing to those voters who leaned towards (Trump) last time and making sure that they don’t see (Biden) as a legitimate alternative this time,” Lindberg said.