Forget policy positions, economic plans or soaring rhetoric; when Americans go to vote on November 6, there's a strong chance their decision could be dictated by something else entirely.
This election has seen a consistent barrage of half-baked mistakes and misspeaks, as well as a handful of major gaffes and revelations that were accelerated to the fore by social media's constant churn. Here is a list of some of the most prominent off-script moments for President Obama, GOP challenger Mitt Romney and assorted down-ballot candidates:
Killing Big Bird:
Romney was by far the winner of the first debate in Denver -- it turned around his entire campaign -- but that didn't come without a cost. While discussing discretionary spending, Romney said that he believes the government shouldn't be in the business of public television, including funding PBS. Instead, television should be privately funded, he insisted. But the point was lost a bit when he said, "I don't want to kill Big Bird; I love Big Bird." The phrase ricocheted around Twitter and Facebook, and eventually became the subject of an Obama attack ad.
Binders of Women:
The second debate provided the second of Romney's debate gaffes. While discussing his time as Massachusetts governor, Romney said that he did not have enough women job candidates for state office, and so he asked assistants to bring him "binders of women." The claim came under dispute -- it turns out a non-profit had prepared the so-called binders with names of women job candidates for whomever won the governor's race in 2002 -- but more importantly, it led to the inevitable Twitter hashtags, tumblr blogs and Halloween costumes.
Bayonets and Horses:
In the final debate, Romney provided a set-up: While he criticizing the president's handling of the military, he said the Navy had fewer ships than it did in 1917. Obama's quick reply: "We also have fewer bayonets and horses." And just like that, the third debate found its meme.
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"You didn't build that":
Originally part of a remark Obama made in a speech about how government and public participation are inherent in any successful business, the quote was appropriated by conservatives who said Obama was disparaging private entrepreneurship. The phrase became a familiar refrain in Republican speeches, and was even the theme of the RNC in Tampa in August.
Clint Eastwood's Empty Chair:
No one knew what to expect when Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood spoke just before Romney took the stage at the GOP convention. The legendary director started with an empty chair next to him, and for five minutes, all seemed okay -- the comments were scripted and boilerplate. But after that, Eastwood nodded at the chair, indicating that an invisible Obama was sitting in it, and began a long one-way conversation with the presidential stand-in.The speech wound up overshadowing Romney's speech - perhaps one reason why polls showed no "bump" for the candidate after the election -- and is still the topic of fervent discussion.
Todd Akin's "Legitimate Rape":
Republicans had hoped Missouri Rep. Todd Akin would easily defeat his state's first-term senator, Claire McCaskill, giving the party one of the seats it needs to win a majority in the upper chamber. Then came an interview he did with a local news station, in which Akin said that the female body had ways of shutting down pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Great outrage followed -- Romney and most of the rest of the GOP abandoned Akin -- and he was left for dead. But Akin has stayed in the race, and is running somewhat close to McCaskill, spurring the GOP to work to support his campaign in the last days.
Mourdock's "God's Plan":
The second of the GOP's rape-related gaffes, the Republican candidate for senate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, said in a debate last week that he does not believe in abortion in the case of rape, because while it is tragic, it's also part of God's plan. That also outraged women's groups, and may give the election to his (pro-choice) rival, Dem Rep. Joe Donnelly, though the GOP has stood beside him, in hopes of taking the seat vacated by Senator Richard Lugar.
Joe Biden's Greatest Hits:
Democrats see the value in the folksy approach of the Vice President, but that comes with a price: his tendency to say things that either don't make sense -- or make sense in ways he didn't intend. Among them: his comment to a mostly black audience that the GOP wanted to "put y'all back in chains," a seeming allusion to slavery -- though he had referred to economic chains earlier -- and his promise that President Obama "had a big stick," in front of a bunch of college kids. They got the double entendre; he did not seem in on the joke.
Obama's "Private Sector is Doing Fine":
In June, Obama said of the economy that "the private sector is doing fine," and that he needed to worry about helping state and local governments create jobs. While the numbers at least loosely back up his claims -- no one would say that any sector is flying right now -- he was criticized for seeming to blow off much of the economy. The statement became an opposition attack line that's persisted for months.
Romney's 47 Percent Comment:
A hidden camera captured a remark Romney gave at a private fundraiser in May. Posted in September, the footage shows the GOP candidate telling a well-heeled audience that 47 percent of the country wouldn't vote for him because they enjoyed government handouts. The video caught fire on the Web and played on cable news for weeks, and Democrats used it to tag Romney as out of step with nearly half the country.