The return of the "next president" flub

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Introducing Paul Ryan as his running mate this morning, Mitt Romney made a gaffe that was remarkably similar to one that Barack Obama made four years ago when he introduced Joe Biden as his running mate.

Here's how the error was reported by Olivier Knox on The Ticket (the political blog of Yahoo! News):

"I would like you to join me in welcoming the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan!" Romney told a fired-up crowd in Norfolk, Virginia.

As Ryan took the stage to cheers and flag-waving, and settled in behind the podium for the biggest speech of his political life, Romney came back to make things right.

"Every now and then I'm known to make a mistake," he said, to huge laughs from the supportive audience. "I did not make a mistake with this guy. But I can tell you this, he's going to be the next vice president of the United States."

In 2008, Mark Liberman presented Obama's gaffe in the post "Political slips of the tongue." Here is the audio:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

So let me introduce to you [0.417]
the next president [0.886]
the next vice president [0.230]
of the United States of America [1.535]
Joe Biden!

The difference with Romney's slip was that he had to return to the microphone to make his correction after Ryan had already begun speaking, while Obama only took less than a second to self-correct mid-sentence.

With regards to Obama's slip of the tongue, Mark wrote:

One thing that I didn't hear from any of the talking heads commenting on the rally, or see in any of the text-journalism reports this morning, is a simple point about word-sequence frequency. Current Google counts are 3.5M for "the next president", more than 100 times greater than the 30.6K for "the next vice president". But over the past 19 months, Senator Obama must have heard the phrase "the next president of the United States" thousands of times more often, because it will have been used several times a day, at every rally and event in a busy campaign schedule, while the phrase "the next vice president" will never or hardly ever have come up.

The fact that both Obama and Romney could fall prey to the same error — in high-profile, highly scripted scenes of political theater — is proof that patterns of word-sequence frequency can often overwhelm our poor human brains at the most inopportune moments.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    It's another tribute to the power of collocational expectations that Olivier Knox misquotes Romney — right underneath a short video clip of the quote itself!

    How Knox quoted Romney:

    "I would like you to join me in welcoming the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan!" Romney told a fired-up crowd in Norfolk, Virginia.

    What Romney actually said (and I've included additional context to make it clear what preceded "join me"):

    Today's a good day for America, and there're better days ahead. Join me – {applause} Join me in welcoming the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan! [link in case your browser chokes on the audio tag]

    In other words, Knox simply hallucinated the five-word sequence "I would like you to".

    If Knox were a speech recognition system, we would score his "word error rate" as 5 insertions in a phrase whose true length was 13 words, for an error rate of 5/13 = 38.5%.

    Yet another bit of evidence about the standards of journalistic quotation accuracy, alas.

  2. Clayton Burns said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    –patterns of word-sequence frequency

    Sounds plausible.

    Compounded by a seductive paraphonic error, perhaps.

    next president: "I like Ike."

  3. Lane said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

    This isn't as linguistic, but I was in the New York basement room where Terry McAuliffe, at the time a moneyman and booster for Hillary Clinton's Democratic primary campaign, introduced her as "The next president of the United States!" The amazing thing (the reason it stuck in my memory) was that that was very night that night Barack Obama won enough delegates to cement the nomination for himself. Here's my photo of McAuliffe that night, June 3 2008.

    The just-defeated Clinton:

    This was the headline later that night.

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