Americans for Prosperity has said that it did not intentionally send thousands of mailers with false information about voter registration to North Carolina voters last month. “A few minor administrative errors,” organization spokesman Donald Bryson told MSNBC.
Yet, this type of action has a long history among some conservative political strategists.
Longtime journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater described many such deeds in their 2005 book, “Rove Exposed: How Bush’s Brain Fooled America,” and their 2006 book, “The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power.” Instead of false information mailed to potential voters, they chronicled a legacy of successful false information on both mail and hand-delivered fliers to potential voters.
Back in 1994, during George W. Bush’s campaign to unseat Texas Gov. Ann Richards, fliers were left on church-goers’ windshields one Sunday during the campaign. The front of the flier showed two men, one black and one white, bare-chested and kissing. Underneath the picture were the words, “This is what Ann Richards Wants to Teach Your Children in Public Schools.”
The flier came after a long whisper campaign by Bush surrogates, the authors wrote, suggesting that the divorced Richards was a lesbian, who had “surrounded herself with a staff of suspiciously single women.” Bush’s then-chief media strategist Don Sipple was quoted as saying that the strategy had been a successful “subterranean text of the campaign.” Bush went on to win the governorship twice, resigning only when he was elected president in 2000 after a contentious primary race against John McCain.
Given that the false-fliers strategy had been so successful once, fliers with a similar theme were distributed again, this time on South Carolina doorsteps in 2000 depicting McCain in a photograph shaking hands with members of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing gay fiscal conservatives. “This was political dynamite in a place like South Carolina,” author Slater told PBS’ Frontline in a 2005 interview.
At the time, McCain was Bush’s main challenger and had been a surprise primary winner in New Hampshire. Besides the Log Cabin flier, the Bush campaign blanketed South Carolina voters with direct-mail warnings that McCain wanted to remove the pro-life plank from the Republican Party. This wasn’t true, but the state’s many anti-abortion voters took notice.
Others in the state heard the “whisper campaign” or received phone calls hinting that Cindy McCain had a drug problem and that the McCains had a black child, the authors wrote in their book “Rove Exposed.” McCain lost the South Carolina primary and therefore his campaign momentum, which never returned.
During the Bush re-election campaign in 2004, the scare tactic of gay marriage fliers was again resurrected. Two months before Election Day, mailings began reaching voters in West Virginia and Arkansas with a picture of one man on his knee in front of another, “a typical visual clue for a marriage proposal between a male and female,” the authors wrote in “The Architect.” The photo was captioned with the word “Allowed,” while a photo of the Bible bore the text “Banned” – if voters voted for Democrats, of course. The Republican National Committee later acknowledged it had sent the fliers.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin and other states, robo-calls pretending to be from the John Kerry campaign told swing voters, “A vote for Kerry is a vote for gay marriage: it’s our time,” incensing conservative voters and persuading them to vote against this Democrat who, they believed, was about to bring them gay marriage. The tactic was one of many that brought out a conservative base in large numbers that year and changed the overriding campaign narrative away from the war in Iraq, which wasn’t going well, to gay marriage, which was on the ballot in 11 states where voters passed anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments that year.
Today, it is clear that gay-bashing is no longer very effective. Thanks to court rulings upholding gay marriage, pop culture portrayals of gays and lesbians, and the increased willingness of gays and lesbians to openly embrace their sexual orientation, far fewer Americans are as threatened or opposed to the issue as they were just 10 years ago. While race remains a subtext, it too is less effective than it was in the days Sen. Jesse Helms not-so-subtlely sent the message that a vote for him was a vote for continued white privilege.
So now the tactic seems to be voting rights. Make no mistake: Voter ID requirements, shut-down polling places near college campuses, reduced early voting days and locations, and gerrymandered district lines that divide and weaken geographic groupings that make more legislative sense together and beget real election competition, have all been an intentional right-wing strategy.
Given this new thrust and the long and successful history on the political right of using and spreading direct mail, robo-calls and doorstep and windshield fliers with false information, it is easy to believe the strategy continues. Were thousands of “minor administrative errors” made in North Carolina that would have produced thousands of voter applications sent to incorrect addresses, by an incorrect “too-late” deadline, with the incorrect place for voters to get their questions answered, all of this in the very state where a U.S. Senate race is still too close to call?
As the late writer Pearl Buck once said, if you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday. On a lot of yesterdays, erroneous election fliers and mailers have not been mistakes; they have been systematic strategies that have worked all too well.
Cindy Elmore, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Communication at East Carolina University. She doesn’t speak for ECU.