Wednesday, November 5

Losing Truth: When Astroturf Wins


While the nation celebrates the victory of President-elect Barack Obama, Nevada is already lamenting the unintended consequences that came with his victory. Two respected state senators, one of which I worked with this cycle, lost their seats to campaigns best described by the only paper to endorse those who benefited.

“Don’t look to Allison Copening, who defeated Beers, or Shirley Breeden, who defeated Heck, to become a driving force during the next legislative session. The candidates relied on outside expenditures that hammered the incumbent with negative ads, a national Democratic wave, and ducking debates and tough questions,” wrote Cy Ryan with the Las Vegas Sun. “Now, they’ll have to navigate the politics of Carson City. And their positions on the issues, from renewable energy to higher taxes, will be on the record.”

The surrogate smear campaigns against Beers and Heck, which exceeded the early estimates of $1 million against both to be closer to $1 million against each for races that usually require around $100,000 to run a substantive campaign, included lies about their records, their characters, and their professions.

Specifically against Beers, the mailers and television advertisements eventually claimed a fictitious ethics charge and accused him of “making up” a law enforcement endorsement that he had. In one of the television commercials, they included a four-frame fraction-of-a-second image of a gun pointing to his head. The owners of that advertisement said they stood by it.

Where was the media? For the most part, the newspapers were there. The more conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal, the more liberal Las Vegas Sun, and the liberal alternative Las Vegas CityLife all vetted the false claims, damned the smear campaigns, protested the refusals to debate, and demonstrated direct ties from the candidates to the surrogate attacks. The latter of the three papers ultimately joined the more conservative first to endorse Beers.

Yet, with print circulations declining and mostly unanswered anonymous comments attached to those articles online, the weight of independent or even biased journalism is waning; something that needs to concern us all. Even when budget-crunched newspapers are not resorting to "he said, she said" reporting that masquerades as objectivity, fewer people are reading. Instead, they only rely on whatever can be burped out by black hat public relations professionals and political spinsters.

Ultimately, two well-funded Astroturf campaigns carried the day in both races, backed by Obama-led straight-ticket voter turnout and diminished Republican turnout that left even Richard McArthur, candidate for the more conservative Assembly District 4, vulnerable for most of the evening against an opponent who did not campaign at all. McArthur won by a small margin.

As for the state senate races, the losers are Nevadans. In Beers, they lost the only accountant in the state legislature, who even his adversaries agreed knew more about the state budget than anyone serving in the state senate and credited with being a champion for the underdogs, even if it meant going against his own party. In Heck, they lost a smart legislator, emergency room doctor, and U.S. Army Reserve colonel.

What is the cost? Considering, before the ink was even dry on the morning newspaper, some of the would be winners who promised no “new taxes at this time” are already saying they feel pressured to raise them, which reminds me of a fitting quote from American writer and economist Thomas Sowell:

“If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else's expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.” — Thomas Sowell

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8 comments:

Mark on 11/5/08, 10:46 AM said...

It sounds like we need regional versions of FactCheck.org and Politifact.com. Those helped national reporters who otherwise did not have the resources to get into such problems.

At the same time, isn't it a little too easy to blame local results on the national campaign? I know the latter had a big impact, but don't candidates in the end have to assume responsibility for their loss? I liked this about John McCain last night.

Of course, I am clueless about Nevada politics, as you well know, so take this with a grain of salt if you wish.

Rich on 11/5/08, 12:01 PM said...

Hey Mark,

You raise several points. I'll try to break them out...

Fact Checking

I would agree with you that we need more independent fact checking organizations. But even if we have them, we have to assume people will read them.

In this case, the fact checking by the papers was done and published. But the circulations and actual number of eyeballs landing on any given page are low enough that most articles were not read.

National Race Impact

I disagree on your word choice of "blame." It is a bit much ... impact is better word choice in this case. And the reason I say that is national race's have an impact on the local races (anywhere, not just here).

They always have an impact on voter turnout, regardless of who wins. In this case, historic numbers of new voters enrolled for the Obama campaign made an impact as did independents who voted Democrat down the ticket. (There is a lot more too it, of course).

But that is why I mentioned McArthur's campaign. He campaigned pretty hard; his opponent didn't campaign at all. And yet, the votes were amazingly close — indicative of straight ticket voters.

Candidate Responsibility

I think candidates are responsible for their own losses, assuming the opposing campaigns are not blatantly false. Whereas ... when one side doesn't have any accountability or face any consequences, it becomes vastly different.

For example, a claim of a made up ethics review investigation will sway voters until it can be defended. However, during early voting ... people still go the polls. So, they might learn it was a lie the next day or day after that, but it's too late to undo their vote.

In the Beers race specifically, we saw it how the numbers moved. Copening carried the early vote, but not the general election, primarily because the general election voters benefited from knowing that the ethics investigation was fraudulent (among other things). Worse to me, once the party putting out the mailer was directly informed the material was false, they put it out again anyway.

What we need to work on in this state is campaign reform with real punitive damages toward candidates and their surrogates who knowingly lie in their campaign material about opponents.
Keep in mind, I don't mean negative material that is factual, but rather blatantly false material designed to defraud voters.

Who Lost

I don't think Beers lost as much as the voters lost, which I why I quoted the one paper that endorsed Copening today. Their story is not your usual "pat-voters-on-the-back" that is indicative of seeing their endorsed candidates win, but rather a story indicative of ... we didn't know it would happen.

Who Won

Having privy of all opposition research and the amount of it that we did not use in favor of a largely clean campaign, I'd say we still won because we did not stoop to their level of inaccuracy nor attempt to mislead voters.

I don't believe in lying to voters, and would not do it even if it meant winning. If a campaign cannot be truthful than I'd rather not work on it. And I have walked away from some that didn't want to be.

Also, traditionally, candidates in Nevada have a history of denouncing third-party campaign material that crosses the line. Beers, for example, abided by that and denounced the first third-party mailer in his favor. Copening never denounced a single false attack on Beers, but rather reinforced it in her campaign material while claiming she not responsibility or accountability, despite the evidence that demonstrates otherwise.

It's discouraging enough to me, thinking that one can lie to win, that it is more doubtful than ever that I will work on another race.

But that's me. I only work for select people.

So if no other candidate that I can believe in comes forward again, then I'll be happy to end 10 years in politics with a record, roughly: assembly primaries 5-0, assembly generals 6-1, senate primaries 1-0, senate generals 1-1, congressional primaries 1-1, congressional generals 1-0, gubernatorial primaries 0-1, gubernatorial generals 1-0.

Best,
Rich

Bill Sledzik on 11/5/08, 6:41 PM said...

Pretty chilling stuff, Rich. And we all know it's not limited to Nevada.

You point to an issue that's concerned me since the advent of the Internet and digital media. With so many sources of information available to us, influence of the trained, professional journalist is diminished.

Whom do you trust? You and I pretty much live online, so we know where to turn for info that's vetted. Most folks don't know whom to believe and too often rely on biased sources that reflect their predispositions.

In the past, we counted on the Times and Cronkite to make sense of our world. But they no longer have the resources to serve as guardians of democracy. And even if they did, I'm not sure they could rise above the noise of the Web.

Not to be pessimistic, but somebody's gotta light the path. Maybe President Obama will have some ideas.

Rich on 11/6/08, 7:40 AM said...

Bill,

Our country has been in regressive cycles before. At least in Nevada, and perhaps elsewhere in the nation, we're be facing one again.

Our newest representative in congress was on a radio show yesterday morning taking about how encouraging people to be generous is too limited so our new congress will be looking for ways to force them to be generous. The same holds true for those in our state legislature, which is where she came from.

For all the brilliance of social media, there will certainly be setbacks with too many sources and agendas. I'd like to think people will be able to find and elevate those sources, but right now, you are right. There seems to be more interest in elevating only those sources that people agree with or are friendly with regardless if that information is right, and when they don't agree with it, they attempt to disparage and diminish the source or the person who turned to it.

I experienced this the other day, when I causally mentioned an article in The New York Times from years ago that warned that the Clinton administration had set the ball in motion on lending issues as they relate to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The scoffed at the idea, calling The New York Times one of the most unreliable, biased right (news to me) sources of information in our country. So then, to prove her point on a different topic, she sent me an article from The New York Times!

The guardians of democracy are certainly wounded, being replaced by information brokers who are funded by one side or another, especially online, and allowed to wear the hats of faux objective journalism. Until the state election, I believed that people would be able to find the truth, but now I realize that finding the truth is much lower on the priority list than even I knew.

As much as he will have some good ideas on some issues, I would not look to President Obama on this one. In terms of campaign reform, McCain was the better choice; his stand on that very issue (correct stand, I might add) that rubbed Republicans the wrong way for years. I suspect will we get a sneak preview of where President Obama stands on campaign reform by whether or not he allows unions to remove secret balloting for workers at companies when they decide whether or not they want a union.

In terms of the Internet, it's anyone's guess how deep future regulation will go. But I would cautious in placing too much faith in government to light the way. I think it needs to come from someplace else, but have yet to discover where that might be.

Best,
Rich

Mark on 11/6/08, 7:59 AM said...

I am amazed at how often I hear people reject stories out of hand simply because the NYT or Fox reported it. These people don't take the next step and consider how the actual reporting for a given story from a given outlet was done, whether by the NYT, Fox or whoever. Just blanket denial. That's not a good place for these media to be in, especially newspapers given the their current business difficulties.

Rich on 11/6/08, 1:52 PM said...

Mark,

Certainly some credibility loss was earned by actions, but some was not. But yes, blanket denial is the mood of a majority on mainstream media. Personally, I read stories from multiple sources and have become pretty adept at spotting bias.

But more importantly ... even though a majority only trust the media when it affirms their position, it doesn't mean the majority is right. :)

Best,
Rich

E!!-lizabeth Crum on 11/8/08, 8:57 PM said...

I'm exhausted from hours upon hours of reading so am making this my last read/post of the night. Rich: I don't know you, but based on what I've read on your site tonight I hope I soon will. Please drop me a line; my email address is on my blog Contact page.

Rich on 11/9/08, 11:56 AM said...

Elizabeth,

Nice of you to drop by. I've heard good things about you and became introduced to your blog during the campaign.

You can expect an e-mail in the days ahead.

Best,
Rich

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