I still remember the first political mailer I did that made me feel completely slimy. In 1998, I was doing work for an incumbent Alabama governor. I had played a minor role in the campaign, but I’d handled a few mail pieces and had made some nice money. At the last moment, the state party came to me and wanted one more mail piece to go out to a lot of households, something like 300,000 or so.
The guy I had done the work for was about to lose. This mail piece was to be an attack to try to hurt the challenger at the last second, after it was too late for him to respond. The pitch was simple. The Democratic challenger had somehow been vaguely and briefly associated with somebody who was a ’60s radical. So I was supposed to tie the challenger to a collection of something like five or six anti-war protesters from the ’60s, even though there was no connection in real life.
I don’t remember how I worded the piece, exactly. I remember that it looked nice and it was clever in the way it implied the challenger was one of those people — people such as “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, whose picture was included, of course. If you just looked at the card briefly, you would assume that the fine print must surely have exposed the challenger as an awful, evil radical who was a danger to us all. But it did nothing of the kind, because that wasn’t true. It never quite said anything inaccurate. The copy and photos just implied it.
I don’t remember too much more about that piece, but I do recall that I pocketed $10,000 in profit from that last-second job. It’s the kind of slimy, unethical thing that’s done every election — by people in both major parties — but it was the beginning of the end for my ability to stick around. The money helped, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling that I’d done something very, very wrong.
It’s 14 years later, and someone else here in the state did something that was similarly very, very wrong this week. I don’t know who was paid to produce this piece. All I know is that it’s a lie. You might be interested in looking at how such lies work.
Alabama voted overwhelmingly for Romney this week. Everybody knew going in that would be the case, because Barack Obama is very unpopular with Republicans and whites. (The two groups overlap a lot, but they’re not the same.) So anyone tied to Obama would be viewed unfavorably by a lot of people here.
The Republican nominee for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court is very unpopular, and the state GOP knew that. His name is Roy Moore, and he’s the one you might have heard referred to as “the 10 Commandments judge.” He was an obscure county judge in a small town until a controversy over a plaque of the 10 Commandments in his courtroom propelled him to fame and then won him the job of chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
In the middle of the night, he secretly installed a huge 10 Commandments statue in the Supreme Court building. It created instant controversy and was quickly in federal court. When Moore refused to obey a federal court order to remove the statue, he was thrown out of office.
In the next few years, he tried to run for governor a couple of times, but never generated any support outside of the most conservative of the Religious Right. His political career appeared dead.
This year, though, he managed to get the GOP nomination for chief justice of the Supreme Court again. It wasn’t a controversial primary. I don’t even remember who his opponent was. In the meantime, the Democrats suddenly realized that they had a prime opportunity to win a statewide office if they ran a decent candidate. They guy who had won their nomination was a nut case who’s run for office many times over the years on both parties. Nobody thought he had any real credibility. So after that guy said some things which sounded nutty and unprofessional, a panel of the state Democratic Party threw him off the ballot and replaced him with a qualified judicial candidate, Bob Vance.
Many Republicans didn’t want to vote for the nut case Roy Moore, so Vance had a bit of a chance, even though he was a late entry to the race and didn’t have much name recognition. Polls showed that it would be close. The unknown Vance (even though he was a Democrat) might beat the well-known (and widely disliked) Moore.
The state Republican Party sent out this last-minute mailing. Even though there was absolutely no real connection between Bob Vance and Barack Obama, this 8.5×11 card that uses “Godfather” imagery leads you to believe that Obama made an offer to Vance — and that Obama is going to secretly control Vance by pulling his strings. Remember, Obama had nothing to do with Vance being selected for this nomination. (You can click on either the front of the card — above — or the back — below — and see a much bigger copy.)
On the back, ominous phrases imply that there’s something crooked afoot. “Backroom deals” really just refers to the fact that Vance was chosen by a committee. “A Money Trail” simply refers to the fact that Vance and his wife (who was appointed a U.S. attorney by Obama) have given money to the Obama campaign, but it implies there’s something sinister. And the phrase “A Political Appointment” is meaningless. They couldn’t come up with something to accuse Vance of here, but they just threw out a vague charge and slapped a question mark on it, ending with “You be the judge.”
Last, the graphic on the back appears to show Obama and Vance together, but that’s a composite that’s made up to look like a shadowy deal between the two. It’s a visual lie.
There’s absolutely nothing about this piece that is honest. It never directly states anything that’s untrue, but it’s carefully crafted to make people make assumptions which aren’t true.
What difference did it make? Well, Moore won with 52 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney won 61 percent of the Alabama vote, which makes it stunning that any Republican on the statewide ballot got as little as 52 percent. Polls showed that the Moore-Vance race was close. If just 2 percent of voters were swayed by this dishonest piece tying Vance to Obama, that would have been enough to swing a 50-50 race into a 52-48 race.
Do I think this dishonest piece won the election for Moore? Yes, I think there’s a good chance. A negative piece can generally sway just a very small slice of the voters, but in a tight race, that’s all it takes. You just have to put doubt into the minds of a very small percentage — “Is Obama really involved in this race?” — and you can change who wins.
There’s a very good chance that it happened here.
Moore might have won anyway. We’ll never know. But if he had, it would have been a lot closer.
This is how campaigns lie to you. They can state the facts while telling a lie. There’s nothing that’s technically non-factual here. But the entire thing is a lie — and the people who produced it and paid for it know that it’s a lie. They don’t care, though. They simply care about winning elections.
If you can look at lies such as this — and know that they can swing races for offices such as chief justice of a state Supreme Court — how can you still support the system that puts power into the hands of idiots who will fall for this kind of lie?