17 week in politics 1113
CNN  — 

Every so often in a political campaign, there’s a moment when you know it’s probably over. Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo” moment in 2016. Michael Dukakis’ ruinous debate answer in 1988. Howard Dean’s scream. Gary Hart’s affair. Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment.

Looking back, some of them seem so innocuous they’d hardly make a blip today, in a political climate thick with insults, invectives, profanity and controversy. As another presidential election season slinks toward us, it’s hard to tell what the rules are. Is there any misstep, any controversy, revelation or scenario left that would be big enough to sink a candidate’s campaign? Or are we – and they – immune to the political peccadilloes of elections past?

To sort this out, CNN spoke to two political campaign experts: Jim Innocenzi, a member of the board of the American Association of Political Consultants who has worked on several presidential and gubernatorial races, and presidential historian and author Mike Purdy. They told us what the most common “campaign killers” are, what the biggest risks could be for the 2020 candidates, and why President Donald Trump seems to duck every political silver bullet that comes his way.

CNN: In an age where it seems like political candidates can survive almost anything, are there any unquestionable dealbreakers?

Jim Innocenzi: If you’re convicted of a felony. That’s it. It used to be there were a lot of things you could get in trouble for: If you puffed up your credentials, saying you did stuff you didn’t do. That doesn’t matter much anymore. If you have committed murder or rape, that’s probably going to do it. Short of that, it depends on the brand and the public image you’ve created. Then, it would be something that was counter-intuitive to that brand.

CNN: What kinds of issues tend to be the most risky for candidates?

Mike Purdy: These so-called campaign killers fall into maybe two broad categories: One is morality, and the other is authenticity. A lot of these moments have stemmed around morality issues. We have religion. We have divorce: Andrew Jackson was severely criticized because they said his second marriage wasn’t legitimate. We got through Reagan as the first divorced president, and now Trump. We’ve got affairs and sexual ethics: In 1987, Gary Hart has an affair and it totally sinks him.

The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 underscored the importance of personality and likeability in a presidential candidate.

But a lack of authenticity, in this day and age, even above and beyond any of these issues, is a killer. Hillary Clinton almost lost the nomination to Bernie Sanders because people didn’t perceive her as authentic. And adjacent to authenticity is likeability. You can look at past campaigns that often ride on the issue of likeability. 1960, JFK and Richard Nixon. If you listened to the debates on the radio, Nixon won. But on the TV, JFK won because he was charismatic. In 1932, Herbert Hoover is trying to get a second term in the White House. He’s dour, people are blaming him for the Depression, he loses. Eisenhower vs. Stevenson. Carter vs. Reagan. A lot of it does come down to likeability, and ultimately, whether these things are true or not ends up not being as important as the image it creates.

CNN: Were there any moments in a political campaign that you thought for sure would be a dealbreaker, but the candidate survived?

I’ll go to Richard Blumenthal, when he was lying about his military record and it didn’t matter. He literally lied about the fact the he fought in Vietnam. There have been guys that have fabricated military service, and they get blown out of the water. But he was elected to the US Senate. Why? Maybe you have to consider the state. It was Connecticut. That probably wouldn’t fly in a red state. Everything is relative, and the risk varies from place to place and candidate to candidate.

Ronald Reagan was the country's first divorced president, but his perceived likeability earned him campaign clout.

CNN: How does one candidate survive a mishap that another candidate does not?

Purdy: Part of it depends on the candidate and how they play it. Everyone thinks of the “Access Hollywood” tape when it comes to Trump, but let’s not forget that weeks after he announced his candidacy, Trump was saying John McCain was not a war hero. People thought that was the end for him, and it wasn’t. Trump has this bravado and he creates this image by constant repetition of what he wants to be his reality. That doesn’t require a connection to truth. So he is able to somehow skate through. Some of these other people don’t have that kind of bravado, and when the bad photo op comes up, like Dukakis or Howard Dean’s primal scream, they don’t know how to recover from those things.

Donald Trump's bravado and cult of personality invigorate his fan base.

CNN: Some of the moments that have killed campaigns in the past seem so quaint and unremarkable now. What has changed?

Purdy: We’ve gotten more tolerant about these issues. Bill Clinton is asked about marijuana and famously says, “I didn’t inhale.” Now we have Kamala Harris openly saying she used marijuana. The other thing that I think is happening is the changing response. In some ways we’ve become inoculated against them because of the frequency of these controversies, both pre-Trump and in the Trump era.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris openly admitted to using marijuana, bucking the mainstream idea of a squeaky-clean presidential image.

CNN: What’s different about campaigning now than in past political eras?

Innocenzi: Because of social media, you have to be extremely aggressive. You cannot let things sit. And the lesson that you learn from Donald Trump is, you need to be aggressive all the time. That’s the only way you survive. Somebody throws something out there about you, someone else picks it up, and it’s circulating instantly. If you’re a candidate, you need to crush it. And when someone punches at you, you’ve gotta punch back.

CNN: Every election cycle is different, so what are some of the big issues that may trip up candidates in the 2020 race?

Purdy: I think about Cory Booker, and I think it’s going to be exploited that he’s a vegan. And that’s something Trump would exploit, because it appeals to his base as a shorthand for everything they don’t like about liberals. I think that Booker is also going to get slammed for being a bachelor, even though James Buchanan was a bachelor; Grover Cleveland was a bachelor when he was elected.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker would be one of the very few bachelors to ever take over the Oval Office.

Some of the Democratic candidates are going to face issues of authenticity; Elizabeth Warren, for instance, will be dinged for the way she handled the issue of her claiming Native American heritage. The other issue that may shake things is about Trump – if the Mueller report shows that he obstructed justice, that there was collusion, that he is compromised as a foreign asset. Now that’s not going to shock everyone, there will always be people that will stick with Trump. But it would certainly change things.