Wrong Number

On Sunday, the phone in my study rang late in the afternoon: when I picked up, I heard a male voice–tape recorded–start in on a political campaign spiel. It was a local candidate for selectman, making use of an automated dialing system.

I hung up.

An hour later, the phone rang again. Again, a tape recorded voice. This time a different candidate, for a school board seat, who quickly informed me: “I loathe tape recorded calls, but this was the only way I could respond to the false direct mail that misstated my position.”

I hung up.

I also loathe tape recorded messages…and I stick to my principles. I won’t listen to them.

I understand why these candidates are employing “loathsome” tactics. They are desperate to break through the clutter, to get people to pay attention to their candidacies. Most likely a political consultant has suggested the automated phone calling as a low-cost way to reach voters where they live.

There’s another reason. The phone message is unmediated, and, in a way, private. It’s not broadcast to the world. The press isn’t asking follow-up questions. If timed right, phone calls and direct mail can hit just before an election and whatever is said may never be reported by the media, or corrected. (I saw a particularly effective direct mail piece dropped in mailboxes the day before a county board of supervisors’ election in California–it included newspaper headlines about the decade-old DUI arrest of the conservative candidate in the race. He lost.)

Push polls are one particularly sleazy and unethical tactic. The caller is “taking a poll” and asks a question along these lines: “If you knew Candidate X supported gay marriage, would it change your opinion of him/her?”

It’s a variation on the alleged tactics employed by George Smathers against Claude Pepper in a 1950 Florida Democratic U.S. Senate campaign; Smathers is said to have asked rural voters if they were aware that Pepper was an “extrovert” whose sister was a “noted thespian.” Smathers always denied the story and some regard it as an urban legend (or rural legend in this case), but plausibly deniable negative campaigning is a Florida tradition.

In the Sunshine State, politics “ain’t bean bag” (to borrow from humorist Finley Peter Dunne). Lawton Chiles came from behind to defeat Jeb Bush in the 1994 gubernatorial race through some last minute “wrong calls.” As the St. Petersburg TimesTim Nickens recounted the incident:

Months later, the governor would be forced to acknowledge his campaign made thousands of misleading telephone calls to elderly voters. The calls were aimed at scaring seniors into believing Bush would cut their Medicare benefits. It would be one of the few blemishes on Chiles’ personal integrity.

In fact, you could argue that Jeb Bush might be president of the United States today without those phone calls. Jeb was supposed to win in 1994 and his brother George expected to lose to Texas governor Ann Richards; Florida Republicans at the time told me Jeb (“the brighter one”) was being groomed to replace his father.

Not that the Bush clan hasn’t benefited from tough electioneering. John McCain was derailed in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary by some particularly unsavory tactics. As Richard H. Davis, McCain’s campaign manager recalled in the Boston Globe:

Anonymous opponents used “push polling” to suggest that McCain’s Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the “pollster” determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.

Thus, the “pollsters” asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that’s not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign.

While some of the more colorful incidents come from the South, there are no geographical boundaries to this nastiness. In the last New Jersey gubernatorial race, the Republican candidate ran a television spot with Democrat Jon Corzine’s ex-wife who said Corzine “let his family down and he’ll probably let New Jersey down, too.” Corzine took a hit in the polls but held on to win; the ad certainly set a new low for ad hominem attacks.

I’m afraid there’s more to come. The Internet and other telecommunications advances will enable candidates at all levels to target potential voters. Moveon.org is leading the fight against any charge for bulk emails (an idea floated by AOL and other profit-hungry Web companies) because it has proven to be such a powerful communications tool. The temptation to go negative–without rebuttal and in relative anonymity–will be too hard to resist.

We can only hope that the press will monitor these virtual smear campaigns and call candidates to task and that voters, as in the Corzine example, will treat negative personal attacks with the contempt they deserve.

Duel in Dukeland

The day before, Saturday, I found myself at the epicenter of college sports–the main campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Not only was the No. 1 ranked Duke basketball five playing traditional rival North Carolina in the Cameron Indoor Stadium in an ESPN-televised game but also the No. 1 ranked Duke’s men lacrosse team was hosting No. 2 Maryland. A dedicated sports fan could also choose to watch a women’s lacrosse game, a baseball game, a rugby match or the NCAA Regional fencing tournament, my reason for being in Durham.

My oldest son, Christian, a saber fencer from Haverford College had hoped to qualify for his fourth straight NCAA national championship competition. But early that morning he had to withdraw from the competition due to a severe groin pull (shades of Michelle Kwan).

The day was salvaged, in part, by the response of the other fencers, many of whom stopped by to commiserate about Chris’ unlucky injury and, especially the seniors, to reminisce about past competitions and soon-to-be collegiate Glory Days.

After the saber competition ended, we wandered over to the Duke-Maryland lacrosse game, finding our way through the Krzyzewskiville tents and mobs of blue-and-white hoops fans, and were treated to a great early-season game.

Maryland’s defense kept Duke’s All-American attackman Matt Danowski in check most of the game; the Blue Devils couldn’t stop midfielder in red, Xander Ritz, who scored five goals, including the game winner in overtime. Maryland, 8-7. Meanwhile, Princeton was surprising Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

It’s shaping up to be an intriguing college season.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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