Saturday, October 11, 2008

Smear Campaigns and the People that run them

"You don't defend a lie, instead you talk about everything but the lie."

No doubt about it, the use of "hardball political tactics" is on the rise, but nothing is as distasteful in a race for public office as a smear campaign.

What is a smear campaign? An organized attack against a candidate's personal and professional character by anonymous aggressors or unscrupulous members of the media.

Why are smear campaigns successful? A smear doesn't have to be true to be effective. Campaigns have a number of options to deal with smears - they can counter the lies with the truth or run the risk of ignoring them and watching the lies spread throughout the community.

But if you're a candidate and you're responding to smear campaigns, you're losing.

A candidate who takes the time to rebut smear attacks focuses the attention of the public on the smear -- rather than his/her qualifications, because the candidate is defending him/herself (or a family member or supporter) in the media. (In other words, they are a good guy or gal). but, as we all know, good guys (gals) always finish last -- at least, in America.

Smear campaigns target a candidate's most precious asset, his or her reputation or the reputation of a close family member.

Individuals who design and launch smear campaigns know that If they can get a voter to question his or her trust in a particular candidate, they can probably steer that voter to support that candidate's opponent.

How are smear campaigns Conducted? Its no secret that the Internet provides a 24/7 medium for "anonymous" individuals to smear candidates. Many newspapers, blogs and radio stations host electronic websites, like The Bellingham Herald's electronic comment pages or KGMIs blogs. Most provide a platform that allows for anonymous postings.

Anonymous attackers can and do use electronic sites to smear reputations of candidates, elected officials and family members.

Anonymous (and sometimes not so anonymous) attackers also use e-mail, fliers, mainstream media and political ads or mailers to question a candidate's qualifications and past behavior. Or, to attack a family member or supporter's character and reputation.

Recently, a group of anonymous San Juan Islanders began circulating a flier that includes several allegations about Kevin Ranker's personal and professional life. (Democratic candidate for 40th Leg. District State Senate).

Why do campaigns indulge in this kind of behavior? Because it works!

In what I consider a twist of irony, Sam Taylor, gov. reporter for The Bellingham Herald, conducted an investigation into the allegations against Kevin Ranker and printed the results of said investigation regarding the smear campaign on his blogs.

The smear piece accused Ranker of not being a member of the Sons of the American Legion, a group for individuals who have an immediate relative who served in the armed forces. (His membership had lapsed).

The flier also claimed that Ranker unfairly takes credit for the work of others, specifically in relation to the work he did to help bring a "once a month" Veteran's clinic to the Islands. (Rep. Quall (D) 40th Leg. District, counters that claim in a press interview).

Finally, Ranker's attackers accused him of "covering up" an old arrest that linked him to "undesirable" protesters. (The charges were reduced to jaywalking). The results of Taylor's investigation can be read here:

The most effective campaign smears are based on a grain of truth and applied in a way that is designed to take advantage of a candidate's weakness.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples of how smear campaigns are conducted.

Proponents of smear campaigns sometimes use "push polling" to identify a candidates supporters and make statements to create doubt about a candidate.

For example, Richard H. Davis, former 2000 John McCain campaign staffer, tells readers in a 2004 Boston Globe article, that anonymous opponents used "push polling" to suggest that McCain's adopted daughter was in fact, "illegitimate."

Here's how it works. Back in 2000, a voter gets a call asking if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was "black". If the voter identified him/herself as a McCain supporter, statements were made to discredit McCain and cast doubt about his adopted daughter's ethnicity and background. (Why would someone want to make this a campaign issue)?

Davis tells us that some aspects of this smear were not so subtle. For instance, "Bob Jones University professor Richard Hand sent out an e-mail to "fellow South Carolinians" stating that McCain had chosen to sire a children without marriage." It didn't take long for mainstream media to pick up the charge. "CNN interviewed Hand and put him on the spot: "Professor, you say that this man had children out of wedlock. He did not have any children out of wedlock." Hand replied, "Wait a minute, that's a universal negative. Can you prove that there aren't any?" (link to Davis's article is listed below)

Didn't matter that the smear campaign was false -- McCain lost South Carolina by a wide margin.

In September, the Jawa Report conducted a comprehensive investigation into allegations that Obama supporters started a number of smear campaigns to discredit Sarah Palin by linking her to a fringe third party in Alaska.

Jawa's Rusty Shakleford said, "Sometimes rumors and lies get spread organically with no need from direction. But sometimes what may seem to be an organic bottom up grassroots movement, may actually be led from the top and may be professionally organized."

Michelle Malkin, (who never backs down from a good scrape), posted, "First, read this. Read the whole thing. Rusty Shackleford — with help from Jane of Armies of Liberation, Stable Hand, the Jawa team, Dan Riehl, Ace of Spades, and Patterico – traced a Palin-bashing YouTube video to a Democrat public relations firm, Winner and Associates, and one of its employees, Ethan S. Winner. They believe the voiceover for the ad — which spreads the lie that Sarah Palin belonged to a fringe third party, the Alaska Independence Party — was done by a professional whose voice they believe was also featured in several Obama ads and other spots produced by Obama top strategist and astroturfer extraordinaire David Axelrod’s firm."

Savvy voters do not make decisions about candidates based on smear campaigns.

Think carefully about the information you receive over the next two weeks. Traditionally, October is the month for launching smear campaigns. If the source of information about a candidate is anonymous, overtly partisan or sketchy, voters may want to think twice before they accept the "smear as the truth".

For instance, is Dino Rossi's "Buildergate" all that it's cracked up to be? (Is it in fact, a "grassroots movement" to hold Rossi "accountable" or a professionally organized smear campaign to question Rossi's reputation and link Rossi with the builders who have been sued by some of their members and the Attorney General)?

I don't know the answer to the question, but the timing of FUSE's e-mail, followed by the usual media frenzy, forces me to ask the question.


This case has big implications for Dino Rossi, who could be deposed before the election. As one would expect, Rossi's campaign has issued statements calling the suit "frivolous" and "political garbage".

Meanwhile, key Democratic strategists hope that court depositions will implicate Rossi in the builder's scandal and aid in the re-election of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Paul Abrams, over at the Huffington Post tells readers, "But Rossi now may also be channeling Nixon, or at least his disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, the only person to resign the vice presidency since John C. Calhoun. Politicians who get caught up in campaign finance scandals are lucky; their deeds go underreported and undiscussed. Let's face it; given the past few years of Republican scandals, misappropriation of campaign funds doesn't score too high on the moxie meter."

Where's your documentation, Paul?

Goldy, over at, (also overtly partisan) has posted an article criticizing the Seattle Times Editorial staff for being secretively partisan. He tells readers that the Times staff has told visiting foreign journalists that he is overtly partisan and nothing more than an extension of the Democratic party. Well, Goldy, if the shoe fits, wear it. (Goldy and his commenters rarely have anything nice to say about Republicans).

While I whole heartedly support ATG McKenna's filing of the BIAW lawsuits and the filing of the original Public Disclosure Commission Complaint -- I question the motivation behind the last minute filing of a lawsuit by Utter and Ireland alleging that Rossi broke the law by asking the BIAW if he could count on their support if he filed to run for governor.

If the court finds that it is illegal for prospective candidates to talk to potential supporters before declaring candidacy, (filing public disclosure reports with the PDC), I expect that we will see a rash of similar suits being filed against dozens of Democrats and Republicans across the state. After all, turn about is fair play.

If you haven't read the Jawa Report posting, I suggest you do so. It's a real eye opener!

Have a great weekend!

Sources for background research:

Attorney General files two suits against Builders:

Smith & Lowney, Attorneys for Ireland and Utter:

The Anatomy of a Smear Campaign, by Richard H. Davis, Boston Globe:
Dirty Tricks, on The Nation:

Clark Fredericksen, on Crosscut:

Goldy's Blogs,


Fight the Smears Campaign: (Obama fights back)

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