How to Rig an Election? Ask the Author
Q: You discuss the “spinning of truth” that’s common practice in modern politics. What are the most frequent tactics employed?
A: Instead of tactics, how about a lesson from the master of spin himself, President William Jefferson Clinton? As a graduate student in 1992, I marveled when then-Governor Clinton spun a potential candidacy-killing story and outmaneuvered 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft during an interview about Clinton’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. The masterstroke wasn’t when he blamed it on checkbook journalism, saying, “It was only when money came out, when the tabloids went down there offering people money to say they had been involved with me, that she changed her story.” No, it was when he immediately added, “There’s a recession going on.”
In ten seconds, Clinton went from denying a sordid sex scandal to bashing President George H. W. Bush on the economy. But more than that, he was actually pointing at Bush’s recession as the reason poor Ms. Flowers had to debase herself in the press. In this way, Clinton did all of the following simultaneously: got back to the message, “It’s the economy, stupid;” dismissed Flowers as a gold digger; and delivered it all with an air of compassion for his accuser that would satisfy the liberal female voters he needed to win the Democratic nomination. That kind of unparalleled spin talent deserves respect.
Spin is about bridging from the defensive to the offensive with a well-timed turn of phrase. In every attack, the devil is in the details, and fortunes can turn on those devilish details when they are manipulated adeptly. All too often, it is the overconfident who take it in the teeth, as Walter Mondale will attest; he thought he had Ronald Reagan dead to rights on the age issue after Reagan’s tired performance during their first presidential debate. When the issue arose in the second debate, President Reagan left Mondale in the dust by answering, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Of course, absent a deft turn of phrase, there’s always the option of presenting an overwhelming amount of difficult-to-disprove data while persevering in the face of skepticism (or even countervailing evidence) to make voters disbelieve their lying eyes. Perhaps the best known example of this tactic is the Michael Dukakis tank commercial aired by then-Vice President Bush’s presidential campaign. In the 1988 presidential election, the Bush campaign info-slammed reporters with facts about Governor Dukakis’ position on a number of defense systems, thereby successfully defining the Democratic nominee as weak and capitulating. Many of the facts were taken out of context, relying heavily on the assumption by the Bush campaign that reporters would grow lazy in the face of so much evidence, and that the Dukakis campaign would not engage on the issue for fear of proliferating coverage of the attack. The Bush campaign was right. The image of Dukakis in a tank helmet and tie only supplied credence to the attack that he was a wimp on defense. Volume of data buries the truth just about every time.
Q: Research has shown that the amount of money spent on an election may actually make little difference to the outcome. As someone who has spent a career dealing with campaign money, what’s your response to this study?
A: The three essential elements in a campaign are money, money, and money. Politics is a cost-per-contact business; the more money, the more voter contact, the higher probability of winning. There are scores of elections in every level of government –- local and national congress, gubernatorial races, and so on –- and almost all of them are only about money. If that weren’t true, incumbents wouldn’t make it ever more difficult for challengers to raise money –- which is why 95 percent of incumbents win re-election. So it’s safe to assume the study referenced above was commissioned from an ivory tower, and not on the streets where the rubber meets the road.
Not coincidentally, the election where other elements beside money come into play is the most visible: the presidential election. Those campaigns are partly determined by the news media, and are thus less affected by paid media (e.g., TV spots, radio ads, or direct mail pieces that rip an opponent’s face off). Money raised in presidential primary contests, and disclosed via the Federal Election Commission, has more value as a measure of the viability of the candidate than it does as a means to pay for message delivery and organization.
But in politics, money, like water, always finds a way. There are over 65 lobbyists for every single member of congress, and they will find a way to make sure their money gets where it needs to be. If money did not make a difference in the outcome, so many would not donate so much.
Q: After the Iowa caucus, John McCain said that the results showed the following: “One, you can’t buy an election in Iowa. And two, negative campaigns don’t work.” Is he right?
A: Mitt Romney and Steve Forbes will confirm that the Iowa caucus cannot be bought –- at least, not by inauthentic white men. So the presidential primary elections in Iowa are the exception and not the rule. But the effectiveness of negative political campaigns should never be questioned; it’s easier to get a voter to vote “no” rather than “yes.” Proof? Try 1988’s Willie Horton ad, the whispers of McCain’s illegitimate black baby in South Carolina in 2000, and 2004’s Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Q: Is there really a line between “playing fair” and “cheating” in the electoral process? Is illegality the only measure of what can and cannot be done?
A: You don’t win any prizes for running a moral campaign. Success in politics is all or nothing: a candidate wins or loses, period, and either ends up with power (and the extreme likelihood of retaining power) or no power whatsoever. So the “right” thing is simply defined as the “winning” thing. The bright line of the law is really the only boundary. The rule of law is the only deterrent against bad actors, whether it’s in politics, business, government, or any other sector. Anything more than that is legislating morality, the alleged domain of organized religion and cults. But the other consideration beyond what’s legal is what’s effective: the best rule of thumb about a dirty trick is to consider how it will read in the newspapers if it’s discovered. That can be a pretty good deterrent as well –- for some, anyway.
Q: Given your experience, do you see the modern electoral process as inherently flawed? If so, how? Is there a way to fix it?
A: The system is fine; it’s the people within it that are the obstruction. Politics is a business with its own graduate level degrees, which means student loans that need to be repaid and a need for big money to repay them. How to Rig an Election is all about how election operatives (such as myself, previously) and the politicians who hire them have ensured that idealists can’t win elections. Mostly it is the cynics making the laws: they win power, they stay in power, and they keep power. The voters should have plenty of power in this mess, but they give it up during every election.
The electioneering tactics I write about it the book will only get nastier and more brutal, because the tricks of the trade are known, embellished upon, and passed forward by people like me to more people like me (or, like the person I had been paid to be). The competition is growing stiffer and the stakes are rising with every election. The only real solution is a savvy, committed electorate.
Q: Would campaign finance reform eliminate some dirty tricks?
A: The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) is little more than lawmakers creating new ways for K Street attorneys to charge higher fees to new clients looking to circumvent the law.
The current, most effective methods for getting around the spirit of the BCRA are the 527 committee and its cynical sibling, the 501(c)(3) committee, neither of which are regulated by the Federal Election Commission. The first is a kind of issue advocacy committee that can raise money in large chunks, usually from committed high-net-worth individuals, to advocate for an issue in a TV commercial. Typically, the ad will say something like this: “Congressman Smarmet hates clean air. If you LIKE clean air, then call Congressman Smarmet at the number on your screen and tell him he’s wrong!”
These ads usually air at 1,000 Gross Rating Points (a viewer frequency measure) seven days before an election. The 501(c)(3) has a slightly different dialect, but it has the same high-net-worth supporters, so the commercial might go something like this: “Clean air is good, especially for kids and doggies like yours who enjoy breathing it. But some people, like Congressman Smarmet, think clean air can be bad and dangerous because kids and doggies sometimes breathe too much and choke. We hope this information is useful as you think about the importance of clean air.”
I call the 501(c)(3) cynical because, unlike its 527 sibling, it doesn’t have to reveal where the money comes from to fund its commercials. But both kinds subvert feel-good campaign reform measures like the BCRA, because money is advocacy and advocacy is free speech. If money is equated to free speech, then all campaign finance reform efforts inevitably tangle with the Constitution, a resilient document that fortunately so far has never lost a challenge.
If you have a problem with this fact, hire a K Street attorney who will be glad to be grandly compensated to lose your appeal in the Supreme Court. Otherwise, my advice on how to fix the system is to stop complaining and start donating to your cause of choice.
Q: Which party fights dirtier, the G.O.P. or the Democrats? Do both employ the same types of ethically questionable tactics? Are there any differences?
A: All one needs to do to assess whether one side fights dirtier is to review the latest and best dirty tricks of the current election cycle. In the blue trunks we have the Democratic Party: Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused Barack Obama of being a Madras[sa]-educated Muslim. (In all fairness, the responsible Clinton campaign staffers were fired.) In the red trunks, the Grand Old Party, never to be outdone in the use of bigotry in the political dialogue: evangelicals in South Carolina were made aware that Romney’s religion has a history of polygamy. (Also in fairness, nobody took responsibility for this one.) The most notorious recent dirty trick was the previously-mentioned allegation that Senator McCain’s daughter was his illegitimate black love child, rather than the ultimate display of love that is adoption, which cost him South Carolina in 2000 and gave Bush his chance.
Neither side is lily white; neither side is above dirty tricks. Though recently, the G.O.P. has seen more felons blossom on its family tree.
Q: You went to prison for election crimes while a lot of other people didn’t. How do you deal with that?
A: In writing this book, I wanted to put out the story of what happened. Once I started working on that, I realized I had an opportunity to do a lot more than just vent about what happened to me; I could be completely candid and transparent about the whole political process, everything I had witnessed during my years in the machine. I realized I could give voters the information to understand what they’re getting the next time they receive a direct mail piece, hear a radio spot, or see a TV ad. What reaction is expected of the voter by the campaign paying for the message? The campaign intends for the targeted voter to react in a certain way, so ask yourself if your initial reaction is honest or reactionary, and then go from there.
For me, the acts of getting it all out in the open and hoping that my knowledge and insight are helpful to people both ensure that I sleep well at night. That, and knowing I accepted responsibility for my actions, while others continue to lie and deny.
Q: How are you spending your days now? And what became of your campaign business?
A: Federal subpoenas aren’t so good for business. When I got out of prison, I spent most of my time finishing the book, and at the moment I’m a stay-at-home dad with an amazing knack for getting my kids to eat their vegetables. (Hint: lemon makes anything green taste better.) I’m also pretty busy administering a philanthropic fund that my family started, so I’m not exactly missing politics.
Q: You write that the R.N.C. abandoned Dole in the 1996 election; which candidate/s can you foresee being abandoned this time around?
A: John McCain. He is the probable 2008 G.O.P. nominee after winning New Hampshire, and will have a terrifically difficult time taking control of the R.N.C. while George W. Bush continues to occupy the White House –- Bush still has a significant voice in what’s what at 310 First Street in Southeast Washington, D.C. I can’t speak to the Democratic National Committee, but I’d bet that if Senator Obama is the nominee, there will be a lot of Clinton loyalists who aren’t so eager to do his bidding.
Q: In your view, how has the 2008 race played out so far? Any surprises? Who’s your pick in the primaries, and in November?
A: I’m sticking by the conventional wisdom that Senator Clinton will be the Democratic nominee by virtue of having a presidential caliber organization; it worked for George W. Bush, so it should work for Clinton too –- after all, past is prologue.
I mistakenly dismissed McCain, thinking that Romney’s money alone would carry him to the nomination. I failed to weigh the importance of authenticity and seniority in that contest. Having said that, it’s all still up in the air, as it is with Clinton and Obama. He is inspiring voters (me included –- I wish I had been so inspired when I began working in this dirty vocation) in a way that hasn’t been seen since Reagan in 1984, and is reminiscent of Robert Kennedy.
The biggest surprise could be that both nominations are unresolved going into Super Tuesday. If that happens, there’s a good chance the typical television talking head will be thoroughly confused –- just as they were the night of the 2008 New Hampshire primary.
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