Mitt Romney did not just lose the debate on Tuesday night. He handed the Internet ammunition to memorably mock him for several more news cycles. While candidates have always worried about gaffes, this year’s nominees must navigate the first Meme Election.
Romney is particularly vulnerable because his malapropisms sound more awkward than stupid. Take the instantly infamous binder discussion at the second debate.
Asked about “pay equity for women,” Romney said that women’s groups brought him “binders full of women” to help identify candidates for his cabinet. The Internet went nuts.
People seized on the comment immediately—and it did not simply “go viral.” When 70 million people have already watched something happen live, you can’t just share a clip of the moment. Instead, Romney’s phrasing sparked an explosion of what techies call voter-generated content.
Before the debate even ended, a flurry of humorous and scathing binder websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook groups cropped up online. On the photo-blogging site Tumblr, an irreverent string of pictures remixed the literal image of women, stuffed into binders, with other pop cultural memes—from Dirty Dancing (“No one puts baby in a binder”) to the cartoon character Dora The Explorer (“Women for Self-Deportation”). The Tumblr site curating the images was created by Veronica De Souza, a self-described “social media pro” in Brooklyn who says she is looking for work.
All that creative, clickable content provides another way for regular people to define the debate’s big moments, competing with a role once reserved to the professional press.
“The Internet doesn’t always choose the same moments to focus on as the political press, but binders full of women has almost unlimited meme potential,” says Ben Smith, a seasoned political journalist who is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a news and social media site that is ground zero for memes. “That’s much less predictable than the old-fashioned gaffe cycle, though,” Smith told The Nation, so “there’s no reason Republicans can’t remix the remixes.”
They are already trying.
Since the social media binder obsession bubbled up to the traditional press—a staggering 15,000 articles cite the “binders full of women” line, according to Google News—Romney’s backers have decided to get in the digital weeds. The RNC circulated its own sarcastic picture on Wednesday, a binder of blank pages labeled “Obama’s Second-Term Agenda.” (BuzzFeed posted the picture, sans commentary, under the headline “RNC Quadruples-Down on Binders.”)
This is not Romney’s first experience on the wrong side of a popular meme, of course.
The last time the Republicans had an unfiltered national television audience, at the convention, the reaction to Clint Eastwood’s empty chair routine overshadowed much of the programming. (Obama’s web aides even capitalized on that incident in real time, tweeting a picture of Obama sitting in a presidential chair with the caption, “This seat’s taken.”)
To take another influential example, consider this punishing Internet statistic for the GOP nominee. The most popular online video featuring Mitt Romney is the clip of his infamous “47 percent” remarks. The footage has drawn over 5.2 million views on YouTube—more than triple the views for the most popular video that the Romney campaign ever made. The political establishment was more interested in the issue, compared to the binder gaffe, but they damaged Romney in part because they took root so easily online.
While many of Romney’s most visible scars this year were undeniably self-inflicted, the social media environment can also be unfairly harsh on certain kinds of mistakes. All the binder glee actually demonstrates that dynamic.
Unlike the “47 percent” comments, which put a cruel gloss on an economic plan that already hurt the most vulnerable citizens, or Clint Eastwood, who used a party platform to denigrate a sitting president in unusual and embarrassing terms, Romney’s “binder” line alluded to a legitimate idea.
He was touting efforts to proactively recruit qualified women candidates. He cited a study concluding that his administration led the country for appointing “women in senior leadership positions.” (True, from data based on his first year in office). Basically, Romney was addressing a pay parity question by touting a type of affirmative action. The binders were not the problem.
The real hypocrisy is that while Romney sought credit for the results, as governor, he actually signed an executive order banning equal opportunity programs for women in 2003. Then, after a backlash, he reverted to the original policies, which helped advance women and minorities throughout state government. This is not simply some state government history, either. Just this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments about banning affirmative action across the country. Romney refuses to state any position on that case, despite repeated press inquiries, while Obama has endorsed affirmative action (and defended it in the court case).
Ultimately, Romney is getting sassed for how he talked about the binders, because it was just too perfect. But his bigger problem is that on this issue, like so many others, Romney will say just about anything as long as it doesn’t involve taking a firm position.
For more on Romney's "binders full of women," read Bryce Covert's latest.