Friday, March 21, 2008

How to swing an election

The year was 1950. In the Florida primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, incumbent Claude Pepper faced challenger George Smathers.

Long before "swing voter" became part of our electoral lexicon, Smathers knew what he had to do: appeal to uneducated rural Floridians.

According to Time magazine, the Smathers stump speech went like this:

"Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?

"Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York!

"Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, he habitually practiced celibacy!"

(No doubt Smathers also accused Pepper of masticating at the dinner table, even as an adult.)

This was no Norm Crosby malaprop routine. It was calculated to exploit ignorance in order to inflame fear. And it worked -- Smathers beat Pepper by a reported 67,000 votes.

In 1999, David Howard, a white aide to Washington, D.C.'s African-American mayor Anthony Williams, used the word "
niggardly" in discussing a city budget with co-workers -- one of whom, Marshall Brown, presumed (incorrectly) that Howard had uttered some sort of racial slur.

Predictably, a flap followed. Howard was forced to resign ten days later -- even though "niggardly" isn't a racial slur (it means "miserly") and doesn't share etymological origins with the infamous "n-word." No, David Howard was vilified because he'd used sixty-four-dollar language that sounded suspiciously offensive.

That Mayor Williams ultimately reinstated Howard is entirely beside the point. Ignorance was rewarded, and fear gained ground that it still holds.

For present-day equivalents, look no further than your e-mail inbox. There you'll find messages trying to persuade you that Sen. Barack Hussein Obama is Muslim (
false) and that he intends to take the presidential oath-of-office on the Quran (false).

Better yet, spend some time listening to political talk radio -- left- or right-leaning, it doesn't matter. The poster boy for appealing to listeners' ignorance might be Rush Limbaugh, if it weren't for Cincinnati's Bill Cunningham.

Cunningham and his ilk repeatedly invoke Sen. Obama's middle name and then feign innocence. ("What's wrong with that? That's his name, isn't it?") Their game isn't to link the candidate to anything truly sinister. They know that today's electorate, like the Florida voters of 1950, are just as easily swayed by something that simply sounds sinister.

Ignorance reigns. Fear flames. Votes swing.

Of course, you're smarter than that.

Aren't you?