The primary season is finally ending, and the presidential candidates are ready to spend millions of dollars on casting their opponent in the worst light possible. Those “dirty politics” are the third topic in the Center for Public Integrity’s series on money in the presidential race. I’m Bill Buzenberg.
When it comes to dirty tricks in politics, no group is innocent. Campaigns, political parties, and independent groups all use less savory techniques like opposition research and dirty tricks. The goal? To transform their opponent into a person they think that voters won’t really like.
Stephanie Mencimer: Timing is everything, and it all has to shape a story that feeds what they already know from their focus group, which is this is what this guy’s weakness are. So Al Gore looks like he’s a smarty pants. Or John Kerry is this effete liberal. So anything you can do to reconfirm in people’s minds what they already think about the candidate is a goal of a lot of this stuff.
Stephanie Mencimer investigated the underbelly of presidential campaigns for the Center for Public Integrity. She says these strategies are as old as the presidency.
Mencimer: The rumors about Jefferson having a black mistress go back to his original presidential campaign. That was sort of a whisper campaign even then — that he had fathered a child. There was a lot of dirty politics, even then.
In every campaign, Mencimer says, there are two goals: prop yourself up, and pull your opponent down. Opposition researchers look for mistakes, pictures, legislative decisions — anything that will fit into the story their candidate is trying to tell about the other guy. As John Edwards learned last year, even little mistakes can hurt a lot.
Mencimer: They got some green room footage of his primping his hair, and somebody set it to this music, “I Feel Pretty,” and it just [was] devastating stuff. And all true. Nothing particularly nefarious about it, but it fit the narrative.
That video reinforced the impression left by an earlier news item about Edwards’s $400 haircut — that he was “a pretty boy, a lightweight.” But Mencimer says opposition research works the other way around, too. It can uproot the story a candidate wants to tell about himself, or herself. That’s what happened to Pat Buchanan in 1992, when he was running as an all-American, anti-immigration candidate.
Mencimer: The Bush campaign figured out that Buchanan drove a Mercedes, and so they ran ads, and said Mr. America First drives a German-made car. It was devastating, because he looked like such a hypocrite. He was always talking about “America first.” It was a true thing. There was nothing dirty about it. But the fact that they made such a big deal about him driving a foreign car was really seriously damaging to his campaign.
Not all opposition research is so trivial, though. In the last election, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used John Kerry’s war record to tarnish his image as a war hero.
Mencimer: That was also a brilliant use of opposition research. There was enough there to confuse people. There were actual swift boat veterans that had a beef with Kerry.
But the Kerry campaign argued that the Swift Boat Veterans were doing more than telling one version of Kerry’s record in Vietnam. They twisted the facts, the Kerry campaign said, until they were no longer telling the truth.
There’s a slippery slope between spinning facts and telling outright lies. Information distributed through the Internet can be manipulated until its origins are obscured.
Barack Obama is facing an Internet campaign that distorts his personal history. E-mails have circulated that claim he is “closet” Muslim. This story draws its “proof” from Obama’s stint at a school in Indonesia, and his birth father’s adherence to Islam. Mencimer thinks this storyline will dog Obama for the rest of the campaign.
Mencimer: For some reason, people are attracted to that story line; they want to believe the Barack Hussein Obama stuff that the Republicans and right-wing talk show hosts are repeating.
For the record, Obama is a practicing Christian.
All in all, the campaigns and parties will spend millions of dollars on opposition research. A top research director might make $150,000 a year, or more. Although the primaries dredged up some dirt, the worst may be yet to come. Again, Stephanie Mencimer:
Mencimer: A lot of it is done through the parties. The RNC and the DNC have their own opposition research. But they generally don’t get involved in the primaries.
As November gets closer, look for that money to start pouring into negative campaigning and dirty tricks.
For the Center for Public Integrity, I’m Bill Buzenberg.
For more about this project, and to read about the dirtiest tricks and smears in campaign history, visit our website at publicintegrity.org. Our Buying of the President podcast series is produced by Sarah Laskow.
Bob Dornan Interview | May 21, 2008
John McCain Interview (2003) | February 10, 2003
Chuck Baldwin Interview | May 20, 2008