Do Last-Minute Charges Before an Election Work?

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Dr. Rupp is a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

What do American presidents James Polk, James Garfield, George W. Bush share with the Arnold Schwarzenegger? All were subjected to last minute attacks that threatened to derail their successful campaigns. The accusation each candidate faced ranged from: branding of slaves (Polk in 1844), endorsing Chinese labor (Garfield in 1880), hiding a two decade old D.U.I. (Bush in 2000), engaging in a three decade pattern of sexual harassment (Schwarzenegger in 2003).

Evidence against candidate Polk in 1844 rested on the eyewitness testimony of Baron Roorback, who had seen slaves in Tennessee branded with Polk's initials- J.K.P. The false allegation did not stop the election of the Democratic presidential candidate. But it did provide us with the term--a Roorback--to describe a personal slander during a campaign.

While the Roorback story was false, it did focus attention on a truth--Polk did own, but did not apparently brand, slaves. This fact might have had more resonance for some anti-slavery voters in the North had not the Whig candidate that year, Henry Clay also owned slaves.

The evidence against Garfield rested on his letter to Mr. H. L. Mory supporting the importation of Chinese labor--a "hot button" issue in California. Garfield recovered, in part, because his opponents released the letter too early. Republicans had ten days to mount a limited counterattack, disputing the signature of Garfield. They also pointed out that Mr. Mory in 1880, like Mr. Roorback in 1844, did not exist. Copies of "proof" were rushed to the West Coast to counterattack the alleged 100,000 copies of Morey letter distributed by the Democrats.

On Election Day Garfield won and historians would view the incident as an electoral wash. Although Garfield lost California, he may have benefited from a sympathy backlash from the smear.

Unlike the evidence against Polk and Garfield, the facts against candidate George W. Bush in 2000 were real, although dated. His earlier admission of alcohol abuse helped lessen the damage of the revelation, proving that in politics as in medicine, inoculation can work. But many in his campaign still believe that the incident lowered Republican turnout.

Although the charges raised last week against Schwarzenegger appear more politically serious than the information of Bush's D.U.I., there are three similarities in the response strategy of each candidate.

Schwarzenegger's strategy in 2003 has been: 1)Attack the source of the allegations (Los Angeles Times), 2)Attack the timing of the allegation ("released so soon before the vote"), and 3)Point out the number and/or age of allegations ("so few times and/or so long ago"). The California candidate also added two new twists to the standard counterattack strategy: Get a credible defender (his wife), and make a public apology. These actions and a 20 percent lead in the polls should save the Terminator from being terminated Tuesday in the California recall election

Garfield's response strategy was delayed by the fact that he tried to sort through his correspondence to see if perhaps the letter was genuine. His pause to check authenticity was noteworthy to historians but frustrating to his campaign managers who understood the need for what now would be called "rapid response." After he become president the issue weighed on his mind to the extent of hiring an investigator. The subsequent report proving the fraud came after the president's unexpected death.

The pattern of last minute charges--be they false or true--raise questions about the operation of elections in America. Are these allegations reflective of important issues of policy or trust, or are they just a smokescreen for unnecessary attacks by losing candidates? Maybe we should consider the action by other nations--a ban on political ads during the last three days before an election. Its helps stop last minute charges that cannot be rebuked, and it promotes a quieter environment for the voters to consider the important choices.

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Alec Lloyd - 10/8/2003

A new exhibit for the museum.

mark safranski - 10/7/2003

The fundamental purpose of the 1st Amendment protections regarding speech and press were to safeguard political expression from the abuses of government censorship,especially of truthful and accurate information our political leaders would rather we not hear at the moment when we could most effectively take action. Anyone recall the Zenger Case ? That political operatives spread lies and misinformation is no more reason to trash the Constitution than it makes sense to close libraries on the off-chance that some books on the shelves might be considered "offensive .

McCain-Feingold and the proposed ban above are little more than an odiously unconstitutional advantage to the elite - the incumbents, the wealthy and the famous - at the expense of civil liberty and equality under the law. Moreover, the trash talk bombshells often boomerang against the side that uses them - banning speech is a cure worse than the disease.

Alec Lloyd - 10/7/2003

Why not ban all news coverage of it as well? In a sense, the LA Times story is a huge "media buy," doing more damage to a campaign than millions of dollars of paid advertising.

Cato - 10/7/2003

At least political advertising is in the open. What about a newspaper that runs out of date accusations, whether valid or not, as "breaking news"? One might say that the reputation of the paper would identify the story as partisan or not, but many people, like Will Rogers, still believe what they read in the newspapers. And, of course, timing is everything.

Woody Wilson - 10/7/2003

Very old charges are given a last-minute fillip against a Republican, therefore "maybe we should consider the action by other nations--a ban on political ads during the last three days before an election" ?

Banning TV political ads altogether would make more sense. Make the politicians get out and talk to actual people, present real ideas, face bonafide debates. How about a constitutional amendment allowing us to treat spot attack ads the same way we treat cigarette ads ? Ridding the public airwaves of unhealthy hot air. Alternatively, a real discussion of the history of how election campaigning in America works would be something worthy of an historian. Pro-Schwarzenegger sour grape squeezing is not.