Why Mitt Romney’s "Etch A Sketch" Moment Matters

For the past 36 hours, the airwaves have been filled with constant re-airings of the latest gaffe from the Romney campaign – and many pundits are declaring this the worst misstep yet.

The moment occurred when one of Mitt Romney’s top advisors, Eric Fehrnstrom, was interviewed on CNN Wednesday morning. Here’s the exchange:

Question: John Fugelsang: “It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?”

Answer Eric Fehrstrom, Senior Romney Adviser: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

I’d argue that many of the previous Romney “gaffes” were taken out of context by the media. Not this one. Mr. Fehrstrom was asked a direct question about Romney’s ideological positioning, and his answer seemed to clearly suggest that Mr. Romney would indeed move to the center.

Given that Mr. Romney’s professed commitment to conservative values is already viewed with deep suspicion by many conservative voters, few gaffes could hurt him more. His own top aide suggested that he would be ideologically malleable, confirming for many voters what they already suspected: that he is a shape-shifter who will say whatever it takes to win. Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich quickly seized on the gaffe, bringing Etch a Sketches to public events.

This image, created by Zuma Press, Newscom, and TPM, will likely haunt Mr. Romney for months

The imagery of an “Etch a Sketch” will follow Mr. Romney for the rest of his campaign. Will it doom his candidacy? I wouldn’t go that far. But when candidates reinforce the worst fears about themselves with a gaffe that turns them into a caricature, it’s near-impossible to reverse the narrative.

Just how potent is the Etch a Sketch image? Consider these four losing candidates for office who became their own worst enemies:

In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis confirmed fears about his strength as a leader when this image of him riding in a tank was released during the campaign. He lost a 17-point lead with three months to go and was defeated by George H.W. Bush.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was viewed by many Americans as “out of touch” when running for a second term, due to his own personal wealth and his ineffectual handling of the economy. So when he went to a grocery store and appeared to express amazement at a bar code scanner that had been out for years, it confirmed the “out of touch” meme. (Bush aides insist that he was actually not amazed by the scanner, saying he was indeed aware of the technology. Nonetheless, the image took hold.)


In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was tagged with the image of being a serial exaggerator. He confirmed that perception when he seemed to suggest that he had created the Internet:

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry was widely seen as a “flip flopper.” So when he explained a vote on a wartime funding bill by proclaiming that, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” he gave his Republican opponents a perfect opening to attack his changing positions.

All four of the above examples lasted mere moments, but each came to symbolize an entire candidacy. Mitt Romney’s “Etch a Sketch” moment now joins those historical moments, and Mr. Fehrnstrom’s gaffe will likely be remembered for decades to come.

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