For all the talk of the 2012 US Presidential election being about ‘social media’, it actually demonstrated that live TV debates still mattered. Throughout the campaign the debates probably shaped the public’s perception of the candidates more than any amount of advertising or stump speeches could ever hope to achieve.
When Rick Perry entered the race he looked like a real threat to the other contenders. Partly because he was governor of Texas, the same position George W Bush had held, and partly because he simply looked presidential. Also President Perry had a nice ring to it. As a result, despite his late entry, he quickly began to gather funding and endorsements. Many people thought he simply couldn’t lose.
The first thing that set alarm bells ringing was the September the 7th primary debate in California. Perry just didn’t seem to engage. His answers were lacking in detail, and while his comments about social security being a Ponzi scheme might have played well with core voters, it was hardly likely to attract independents.
Obviously some of his staff picked up on this fairly quickly and tried to spin it as best they could, but he didn’t perform much more effectively in any of the subsequent debates where he rambled his way through most of the questions.
Disaster really stuck though during the November the 11th debate in Michigan. The rest of the candidates could have said pretty much anything they liked that night as the only thing the public remembered was Perry’s ‘Oops moment’. Perry stated that if he was elected President he would fulfil his promise of cutting down on government spending and bureaucracy by shutting down three departments. This would normally be exactly what a Republican audience wanted to hear, however when he tried to name them he could only remember the departments of Education and Commerce. The one he’d forgotten was the department of Energy. This was excruciating TV, and despite repeated prompting from the moderator he still couldn’t recall it.
While Perry’s campaign continued on and he appeared at several more debates, this one gaffe ended his run as a serious candidate. In less than a minute Perry had permanently derailed his presidential ambitions due to a temporary lapse in memory.
It’s important to stress at this point how important a skill debating is to potential Presidents. As I’ve argued in previous blog posts on political mistakes, the ability to engage with your opponent in a contest of ideas really does matter in terms of how voters view you. A fact Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle discovered to their cost. For a lot of people unfortunately, Perry could potentially go down in history as the guy who couldn’t remember the details of his own policy.
Here is Perry’s ‘Oops moment’ in all its glory: