You may know I spend a lot of my "off" time writing for the History Commons as a political historian, cultural researcher, and so forth. Currently I'm working on a chronology of voting rights and campaign finance (or two often-dovetailing but separate chronologies, to be precise, and I'd love to have some help!). I recently came across a story from 2002 that got me thinking about what we're likely to see from Rove and Romney in the days and weeks ahead.
By now, it's commonly accepted everywhere except the hothouse environs of Fox News and LimbaughLand that Obama and the Democrats destroyed Romney and the Republicans at the respective conventions. The Democrats gave one impassioned, fact-based speech after another, culminating in Clinton and Obama bringing down the house, and most of the media, two nights running. The Republicans featured a vice-presidential contender lying about everything except, possibly, his name and an old guy yelling at furniture. The polls indicate the convention may have given Obama some serious juice going into the final weeks of the campaign. So what are the Republicans going to do?
Based on one gubernatorial campaign in 2002 and their current efforts to suppress voting in swing states, they're likely to go bull-goose crazy on slinging accusations of voter fraud. Let's hop over the orange katzenjammer and see why.
Here's the links that tell the story. Some of them are from Highbeam, the poor researcher's LexisNexis, but if you like, that organization offers a free trial that will let you read the stories. Others are on the Wayback Machine.
McCallum vs. Doyle, November 2002
If you're not a Wisconsinite, you likely don't remember the gubernatorial campaign of 2002. (Neither do I; I'm getting this from news articles and such. Real Wisconsin citizens can no doubt add a lot of light to the subject. Post good stuff in the comments and I'll update as needed.) Scott McCallum took the slot in 2001 after Tommy Thompson split to join the Bush cabinet. Thompson, a relatively popular fellow, left the usual economic wreckage in his wake, and McCallum found himself blamed for a good bit of it. Democrat Jim Doyle, the Attorney General, challenged McCallum for the office in the 2002 elections, as did Ed Thompson, Tommy's libertarian brother, making for a three-way race where the third guy was going to drain off votes primarily from McCallum. What's a poor Republican to do in such a situation? Not only go negative, but go postal.
Bingo, Pastry, and 75 Cents in Valuable Prizes
In late October 2002, a Milwaukee television station filmed a segment at a Kenosha residential facility for mentally challenged residents. A Doyle campaign volunteer, Frank Santapoalo, was there holding a bingo game with the residents. Santapoalo had been going to the home on a regular basis for some 12 years, and had a relative living there. Today is not much different, though he did bring with him a Democratic volunteer to talk to the residents about absentee voting. The residents had voted in previous elections, and many are registered Democrats or Republicans. They routinely use absentee voting, and there are 33 absentee ballots on the premises as requested from the county clerk's office. But today the television station is filming. The volunteer, Angela Arrington, is discomfited by the TV cameras and takes off, with the cameras filming her hasty departure. Santapoalo, who is wearing a Doyle campaign sticker on his clothing, runs the bingo game, and distributes pastries called "kringle" to the residents. The residence supplies sodas. Doyle gives cash prizes--quarters, 75 cents max--to the bingo winners. The reporter, WTMJ's Scott Friedman, makes an unusual request of the residence directors: can he film the residents filling out the absentee ballots? That doesn't happen, though the film crew captures a residence official letting the residents know that absentee ballots are available for anyone interested in voting. There is no footage of Santapoalo or Arrington talking to the residents about voting, much less exhortations of "vote for Doyle" or "don't vote for McCallum" or any such. In fact, no political discussions of any kind take place. The visit is about bingo, kringle, and soda.
"Bribing the Mentally Ill for Votes"
WTMJ airs a segment that makes it seem as if Santapoalo and Arrington were at the residence distributing ballots and soliciting votes in return for "cash" (the three quarters given as bingo winnings) and "goods" (pastries and soda). The next day, McCallum carpet-bombs Wisconsin with television ads calling Doyle "crooked" and screaming about "Bingogate." Doyle's been "caught bribing the mentally ill for votes," the ads say. "Votes were bought." At least two people at the residence voted after Santapoalo's visit, and one of them is a convicted felon! OMG! The campaign has already been very expensive and very negative, with both sides flinging accusations of corruption and dirty pool, but the voter fraud allegation takes the campaign right into the gutter. Wisconsin law, sensibly enough, prohibits anyone from giving a voter anything over a dollar in value to influence the vote. Santapoalo, perhaps mindful of the law, restricted his cash prizes for bingo to 75 cents. But he forgot about the kringle!!! (Cue Republican screech horror movie campaign music.) Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Rick Graber leaps on board with McCallum, telling the press: "They gave them quarters, they gave them food, and they gave them drink. [State law] says very clearly you can't give them something of value in exchange for votes." McCallum demands state and federal investigations.
The pushback comes quickly. The Doyle campaign initially says it doesn't know anything about the bingo game, but it is sure nothing illegal took place. Residence home officials say nothing illegal took place, and no one even talked about politics during the time of the bingo games. The county clerk says no evidence of illegal behavior exists, and the convicted felon living at the home did not cast a vote. A raft of former Wisconsin governors call McCallum's ads "character assassination" and David Obey compares McCallum to Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. McCallum tones the ads down slightly, removing the accusation of "crooked" but continuing the vote-buying from the mentally ill allegations and the accusation that a felon cast a vote. Doyle's campaign says McCallum was caught "red-handed" lying about the allegations, and demands the ads be withdrawn. Political science professor Ken Goldstein says: "I've watched a lot of ads. This one, unless I see a lot of good evidence from McCallum's folks, is over the line." Former Senate candidate Ed Garvey (D-WI), who narrowly lost an election when his opponent leveled false charges that he stole $750,000 of union money, says of the McCallum campaign: "They must be completely worried that this thing is falling apart. If you are doing well, you don't call the other guy a crook."
Attempt to Lower Voter Turnout?
Another poli sci professor, David Littig, might have hit the nail on the head when he tells the press that the ads are designed, not to send Doyle or Santapoalo to jail, but to affect voter turnout. Undecided voters seeing the tidal wave of McCallum ads will either, Littig says, vote for McCallum or, just as importantly, not vote at all. "The whole tone of the [McCallum] campaign has been to suppress the turnout," Littig says. Doyle agrees, saying: "If people vote I'm going to win this election easily. McCallum is playing a cynical game right now. He's trying to do everything he can to keep people from going to the polls."
Surprise! No Evidence of Wrongdoing
Special prosecutor Ted Kmiec investigates, and by November 2, says there's no steak behind McCallum's sizzle. No one did anything illegal, no one tried to influence anyone's votes, no one tried to buy the votes of mentally ill people with sweets and quarters, nothing. Doyle celebrates. Wisconsin Democrats speculate that the entire TV news segment was designed to stage a voter-fraud problem. McCallum and Graber snivel and accuse Kmiec of being in Doyle's pocket. On November 4, Doyle, aided by Ed Thompson's libertarian candidacy, beats McCallum and the entire issue is put to rest.
(Not. Two years later, George Will takes to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to resurrect the bullshit charges. WTMJ "filmed Democratic campaign workers handing out food and small sums of money to residents of a home for the mentally ill in Kenosha, after which the patients were shepherded into a separate room and given absentee ballots." Never mind the allegations were disproven. Never mind that the only source for Will's column book is serial liar John Fund. Never mind that Will and Fund have the story entirely wrong. The lies go on.)
Fast Forward to 2012
In 2002, the Republican candidate found himself down in the polls, but close enough to snatch victory if he did something audacious. So he did. But being a modern Republican, he didn't advance a groundbreaking policy initiative or reach out to a different segment of the voting populace. He hurled himself and the campaign into the gutter, launching a vociferous, inflammatory, entirely false attack against his opponent. You wonder: did they sit around a table asking if they should go down into the depths, or keep some shred of decency? "Fuck that!" someone yelled. "Let's tell everyone that Doyle tried to buy them retards' votes! That'll win the election for us!" (Forgive the ugly slur, I think it's quite indicative of the mindset of the modern Republicans.)
Romney is beginning to find himself in a similar situation. A narrow but widening gap between him and Obama that will be difficult to close. A complete lack of any human qualities that might work to reach out to some shaky Obama voters or some undecideds. What they do have is a hell of a lot of money, a tremendous amount of gall, and a complete lack of any moral fiber or a threshold below which they refuse to sink.
So what's coming up? I think we'll see a raft of voter fraud allegations similar to what McCallum tried in 2002. If they can be tied to Obama directly (or at least the Obama campaign), then the Republicans will do just that. If not, "them damn criminal Democrats" works almost as well. Rove, Limbaugh, Fox News, and their allies have almost unlimited dollars to hammer those allegations into the public discourse. Gape-jawed morons like David Gregory and John King will run to dandle the shiny objects on camera, poking at them like chimpanzees pondering a world globe and spreading the lies far and wide. The Republicans might try the "mentally ill" line again. Or the physically handicapped. Or any group that comes across as unusually vulnerable and easily exploited, and guaranteed to inflame the voting populace with ginned-up outrage. It's almost as good as the allegation that "Obama eats puppies" (which they've already tried, if you remember).
And of course, such allegations work hand in glove with the voter suppression efforts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other swing states. The allegations don't need to be proven, they just need to piss off voters and give friendly judges the cover they need to find in favor of the voter restriction laws.
What should we do? Well, forewarned is forearmed. We have to be ready to counter the allegations when they come: not in piecemeal and scattershot fashion, but in a coordinated response of calling bullshit on the allegations, proving them false, and countering with targeted slams against the hatefulness and lies of the GOP campaign -- all within hours of the initial spew, if possible.
What do you think?