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Will Hillary Clinton’s Subway Gaffe Really Hurt Her?

metro card nyc subwayWith the New York state primary on the horizon, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton returned to her adopted home of New York City to reconnect with voters.

While visiting the city, which is home to the Clinton Foundation she runs with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the current Democratic presidential candidate led her entourage to a subway station. While trying to pass through the turnstile, Clinton struggled to swipe her MetroCard in the card reader, while the cameras looked on.

Almost instantly, the footage went viral.

Already, there are several different versions of the story. To Hillary supporters, nothing much happened at all. Hillary had to swipe her MetroCard two or three times, something that could happen to anyone.

To Republican commentators like Rush Limbaugh, it was a campaign gaffe for the ages. Not only had the presidential candidate looked like a phony, she had exposed herself as a liar, a fraud, and most probably a criminal who doesn’t even know what a subway looks like, or something like that.

The entire incident lasted about 10 seconds, and most likely simply confirmed whatever voters already thought of the candidate. Even so, a single devastating photo op can have disastrous effects on a presidential race.

Photos have always been a powerful medium, but that’s especially true in the era of the smartphone and social media. Studies show that high quality photography can actually help increase the value of a home, while professional photographs are twice as likely to be shared online.

For these reasons, politicians actually have strict rules to avoid potentially damaging photo ops on the campaign trail. During a White House event, President Obama was recently handed a navy man’s “football” helmet to try on.

Obama declined, saying, “You don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president. That’s politics 101.”

Generally, any political event that requires a politician to wear a costume is seen as a non-starter; just think about John Kerry’s famous “bunny suit” photo.

Perhaps the most classic example is the Michael Dukakis tank incident, in which the Democratic candidate put on a gunner’s helmet and rode past a row of photographers inside a gigantic tank.

Rather than looking tough, Dukakis looked silly, and the gaffe has been seen as the end of his campaign ever since. Still, the rule against wearing headgear was well known even before the tank incident.

In a Politico feature on the famous campaign stop, one Dukakis advisor shared this rule regarding hats: “The standing rule was that headwear given to the governor could be appreciatively received and cheerfully waved on stage but should not, under any circumstances, rest on his head.”