By John F. Di Leo
Join us as Pavel learns how Democrats mislead the voters through direct mail, both statewide, and in neighborhoods like Illinois’ 54th state representative district…
Pavel walked into 51st Ward Party Headquarters with a bag of pretzels for Pockets, a huge 8 1/2”x11” flyer, and plenty of questions.
But Pockets, the old deputy committeeman, was nowhere to be found.
He poked his head inside the boss’ office, and sure enough, Committeeman Bill Marcy was at his desk, all alone, poring over computer printouts and a huge ward maps. “Hello, Pavel,” he muttered without looking up. “Come to help out?”
“Sure, Boss!” Pavel replied. “What can I do?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, there’s nothing to do this evening. I’m just wrapping things up myself,” answered the Boss, as he stood up, rolled up his map, and put on his trademark tweed jacket. “Pockets was at his desk all day, finalizing the ward’s phone tree and writing the scripts for Election Day. He went home a couple of hours ago.”
Pavel started to turn to go, then remembered the flyer in his hand. “Boss, do you have a minute? There’s something I was wondering about.”
“Sure, son. Have a seat.” Pavel had been helping out so much all summer, the committeeman wasn’t going to refuse a good volunteer a few minutes of his time. Besides, Pockets was telling him just the other day that this kid was alderman material, just wait and see. “What’s on your mind, Pavel?”
Pavel handed him the flyer. It was a full size, full-color brochure with Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Mike Labno on both sides, slamming Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk for voting for “Cap and Trade.” Inside, it presented Kirk’s and Labno’s respective positions, then closed with a plug for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. The return address was that of the Lake County Democratic Party.
The Boss chuckled. “Yup, clever ad, huh?”
“No,” said Pavel. “I mean, I suppose it must be clever; they wouldn’t spend this kind of money printing and mailing a piece like this if they weren’t sure it would be effective. But I don’t understand it. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The Boss smiled. “Where to begin? It’s a hit piece, a negative piece, like a thousand others. There are always negative pieces at the end of a campaign, especially the last weekend when the candidates don’t have time to respond. You can’t always win with nice fluffy positive stuff; sometimes you have to draw a little blood.”
“Well, it’s not my specialty, of course… you’d want to talk to Dave Axelrod, James Carville, you know, the pros, for a real lesson on this. But I’ll do what I can.”
The Boss settled back in his sumptuous leather chair and lit a cigar (not asking if Pavel minded, which he did, but he kept silent). “We’ll start with the obvious. You’ve got your guaranteed Republicans and Democrats who are happy with their candidates, right? You want to keep them energized, so they’ll donate, and you want to make sure they don’t forget to vote… but that’s about it. You don’t have to convince them; ads aren’t for them.”
Pavel just nodded, saying “That makes sense…”
The Boss continued. “And then you’ve got your people in the middle – the independents, the ticket-splitters, the ‘I vote for the person, not the party’ types. Most ads are aimed at them. We want to convince them. You need a mix of positive stuff on your own guy and negative stuff on the other guy. The hit pieces say ‘You don’t want the other guy, because you disagree with him on these five or ten issues, see? You should vote for our guy!’ And if you time it right, and pick the right issues, it really works.”
Again, Pavel nodded, but then said “But that’s not what’s going on here, I mean, not exactly. Before you open it up, it’s not us beating up on Kirk; it’s Labno. It looks like a Labno piece on both sides, except for the return address showing that we funded it. Even when you open it, you might not notice that it’s pitching Alexi. 5/6ths of this piece is a pro-Libertarian hit piece on Kirk; the pro-Democrat pro-Giannoulias part is only 1/6th of it, which, frankly, I think a lot of people probably missed.” Pavel thought further, and added, “It was even kind of hard to open. I’ll bet a lot of the people who got it never opened it. In fact, I’m sure of it. I’ll bet half the people who got this just registered the anti-Kirk and pro-Labno messages. I’ll bet it gets hardly anybody to switch to Alexi.”
“What makes you think we want the reader to switch to Alexi, Pavel?” the Boss replied, with a twinkle in his eye.
Pavel’s eyes went wide. “This wasn’t meant to be mailed to independents, was it, Boss?”
“You’re catching on, son. If your parents got it, there was an error on the list… no mailing list is perfect… but this piece was sent to conservative Republicans – Hard Rs – people we think might be wobbling on Kirk because he’s not conservative enough.”
“So…” Pavel began, “we’re not even trying to convert them to vote for Alexi; we’re just hoping to turn them to Labno?”
“Exactly, son. You’d rather have votes for your own candidate, of course, but any vote you deny your opponent helps, whether it goes to you or to a third party. If they won’t vote Democrat, just get them to vote for someone else, or even for nobody.”
“Sure, Pavel. If we make them upset enough about Kirk that they skip the race entirely, that’s fine too. Third parties and write-ins don’t win. From our perspective, any vote that’s not for Kirk is a vote for our guy.”
“Does the same go the other way?”
“Certainly. From the GOP’s perspective, any vote for the Green Party is a vote for Kirk, because that’s obviously a vote that would otherwise have come to us. But that won’t happen as much, so we don’t have to worry about it.”
“Why not, Boss?”
“Because the GOP doesn’t do what we do. Here we are, mailing out a piece specifically designed to get conservative Republicans to vote for the Libertarian instead of the viable Republican. Do you think the Republicans ever – Ever! – do the same to us? Nope, Republicans never fund Green Party campaigns, or Socialists, or Farm Laborers, or anything else like that. Republicans always fight clean. That’s one of our greatest advantages, son; they play fair. Ha!”
The Boss sat back and puffed on his cigar a moment, then reached into his desk drawer and removed another flyer.
“Here’s another one from the suburbs, Pavel. This one was mailed to Suzie Bassi’s state rep district last week. She lost the nomination to conservative Tom Morrison in the primary, so she’s retiring this year. Check it out.”
Pavel saw before him a brightly colored flyer with pictures of the incumbent state rep, Republican Suzie Bassi and the Democrat candidate, Matt Flamm. “Did the Republican incumbent actually endorse the Democrat nominee? She’s all over this piece,” Pavel asked.
“Beats me. Probably not, or they would have said so… but the ad sure looks like she did, doesn’t it? That’s a great tactic. Make it look like the candidate is so extreme that fellow Republicans don’t support him.”
“But is it true?”
“Who cares? It just has to work. If you can figure out a way to tie your candidate to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King, or Moses or just a familiar incumbent… do it! It gets votes, Pavel; that’s what it’s all about. It gets votes.”
Pavel pointed out a table with four issues, with the two columns entitled “Moderate Matt Flamm & Suzie Bassi” and “Extreme Tom Morrison.”
“Is Matt Flamm a moderate, Boss?”
The Boss nearly dropped his cigar as he laughed. “Of course not! There are no moderate Democrats left… he’s just like all the rest of us. But we’re hoping that district would like a moderate more than a conservative, so we write the flyers so the Republican sounds extremist and the Democrat sounds moderate. Works every time!”
“Even if it’s not true, boss?”
“The truth doesn’t vote on Election Day, Pavel… voters do. And voters can be conned… I mean, guided.”
Pavel read the issues, one by one. “It says Flamm ‘supports life saving stem cell research,’ but Morrison opposes it. Is that true, Boss?”
“Depends on how you look at it, son. Everybody favors stem cell research, of course… and some of it is life-saving… but Morrison opposes a tiny branch of it, embryonic stem cell research, since it’s generally done on aborted embryos or the cast-offs from fertility treatment test tubes. So that gives us our in, and we say he opposes stem cell research, without bothering with that clarification. You’d be surprised how many people fall for that trick!”
Pavel said “I’ve heard of that distinction… embryonic stem cell research is totally worthless, isn’t it? All the successes have been with adult stem cells!”
The Boss just sat back and smiled.
Pavel asked “Can’t the Democrat be sued for lying like that in print? Isn’t that slander, or libel, or something?”
“I don’t know what the law is, but we cling to that First Amendment,” answered the Boss. “Nobody ever prosecutes that sort of thing on campaign ads, Pavel. You can say anything you want in a campaign, and so we do. The only question is whether it works or not.”
Pavel moved on to the second issue on the card. “It says ‘Matt Flamm supports a strong public school system,’ but Tom Morrison ‘supports diverting tax dollars to private schools.’ What’s he talking about here?”
The Boss chuckled again, and lit up another cigar. “You know how some conservatives support voucher programs, so that poor kids in the worst public schools can go to private schools? That’s what we’re talking about here. Morrison favors a limited voucher option. The voters support their public schools, and they usually support vouchers too… but if you word it like this, they’ll side with us. If you just say he supports vouchers, they might side with him! ‘Diverting tax dollars’ sounds so sneaky, so corrupt, doesn’t it?”
“But it’s not, Boss! I know a couple of kids who went to charter schools in Milwaukee on their voucher system. It works great! And the private schools tend to cost a lot less than the public schools anyway, so it’s cheaper for the state to have a voucher program than it is not to. Don’t they know that?”
The Boss took a drag on his cigar and said “Doesn’t matter. We don’t tell them that that’s the issue we’re talking about, do we? We just say he support diverting tax dollars to private schools, and make him sound extreme, make him sound corrupt. Smart tactic. Should win us some good votes, huh?”
It might, thought Pavel, though it was making him sick to his stomach. He had gone through three bottles of antacids since he started volunteering at the 51st Ward Party Headquarters at the start of summer, and this was shaping up to be another night crying out for a dose.
“The third issue is abortion,” Pavel said. He knew all too well what was going on here. The Matt Flamm box said ‘supports a woman’s right to choose,’ while the Tom Morrison side said ‘opposes all abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, and the health of the mother.’
“What I’ve always heard,” said Pavel slowly, “is that this is a sham argument too… that abortions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother are barely one percent of the cases of abortion. We’re making this guy look extreme, based on his position on just one percent of the cases? Is that fair?”
“Who ever said we were fair, Pavel? We’re Democrats!” The committeeman slapped his hand on the desk with a thud. “Look, son, the American people are split down the middle on abortion. A few percent think it should never be restricted at all. A much bigger minority, but less than half, think it should virtually never be allowed. The majority favors some kind of restriction at some point, but they can’t agree on when. So what’s a candidate to do? The majority is certainly closer to Morrison than to us on this, but they don’t know it, because we’ve been working on this issue for forty years. Instead of concentrating on the 99% of cases, where the public agrees with the conservatives, we concentrate on the 1% where there’s enough division that we can make the public think they agree more with us! Brilliant!”
Pavel asked “So most Democrats are really out of step with the voters on this issue?”
“Sure, son… most of our Democrat candidates are totally or almost totally pro-abortion. But the public doesn’t like that word, so we say pro-choice, which polls way, way better. And so we get the public to think we’re the moderates, and not the pro-life conservatives, because we always hammer on the ‘rape and incest’ exception! Don’t you love it? It’s been a long, hard battle, but with the mainstream media and the teachers on our side, we’ve pulled it off!”
Pavel wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take, so he moved on to the next issue on the card. “It says Flamm ‘supports social tolerance and equal rights’ while Morrison ‘seeks to reverse existing protections for gay families.’ What on earth are they talking about here?”
The committeeman asked “Have you ever heard of hate crimes legislation?”
“Um, sure, that’s where a crime is committed, and the prosecutors add a second one if bigotry was involved, right?”
“Exactly, Pavel! If you beat somebody up, that’s already assault and battery, and you can be prosecuted and jailed if guilty, right? So if we claim it was because the guy was black, or because he was Hispanic, or because he was gay, then we can pile on another sentence on top of it. Get tougher with the guy, you know?”
“But, why not just make the penalties for assault tougher for everybody, if this is such a problem?”
“Because, Pavel, what we do across the board doesn’t win us any demographics! If we give a special protection to minorities, a special protection to gays, a special protection to women, or seniors, or firemen, or single mothers, or men with blue eyes and size nine shoes… when you give a special protection to a group, that group votes for you! So we came up with hate crimes legislation, and it’s been a gold mine to lock the gay community, and others too, into the Democratic fold.”
Pavel looked at the floor for a moment, then looked the Boss in the eyes. “So the Republican isn’t really advocating discrimination against a group at all; he’s just in favor of removing an existing discrimination from the statutes? He just wants things to be fair, without special rights, manufactured rights, that pit one group against another? What’s so bad about that?”
The Boss was getting uncomfortable. How the heck did this kid manage to get him to spill the beans on their techniques, one after another? Maybe he was getting too old for this. Not that he could leave; he certainly wouldn’t hang onto his ghost payroll job with the city for five minutes if he ever stopped being the committeeman. Yup, gotta stick around a few more years yet. And sometimes that means putting up with pesky volunteers…
“Look son, I’m sorry if I’m bursting some illusions here, but we have an election to win. You do what you’ve gotta do. You’ve helped Pockets with his job this summer, and we’re grateful, but surely you didn’t think that was the only stuff the Democratic Party does to win elections, did you? We have a lot of techniques, and it takes them all to win.”
The Boss got up, indicating that the interview was at an end, and Pavel should be on his way.
“An election’s an important thing, son… we’ve got thousands of jobs depending on how things turn out, every other November. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it’ll always be. If that means we’ve gotta stretch the truth in a brochure or commercial now and then… if that means we can’t win unless we steer the debate a little more in our direction than in theirs… then that’s just the way it’ll have to be. What’s a little white lie when jobs are at stake, eh?”
Pavel rose from his chair and zipped up his jacket. “Sorry, Boss, I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ve just had this assumption that campaign flyers said it like it is, and that they just tried to convince people with honest arguments from either side. I just didn’t expect to see these kinds of tricks going on.”
“That’s all right, Pavel,” said the Boss as he turned off the lights and walked the boy to the door. “Campaigns are a contact sport, with few rules, and nobody to enforce the few there are. Or as the old-timers say, Politics ain’t beanbag!”
Pavel thanked him for the talk, and brought home the flyers to show his parents. They had some friends in the Morrison district who might benefit from a phone call or two.
The Boss put on his tweed cap (it matched his suit) and turned to walk the opposite way from Pavel’s direction as they said their goodbyes. “Have a good evening, son; we’ve got an election to win!”
And Pavel walked home, pondering on whether our Founding Fathers had ever anticipated that the U.S. mails would be used to spread such half-truths and misleading propaganda. Not for the first time, he reached into his pocket for another antacid as the November breeze carried him home. At least the winds of November seemed to be blowing in the right direction, this year.
Copyright 2010 John F. Di Leo
While Pavel and the Boss are of course fictional, the brochures they discuss here are very real mailings that arrived in Illinois mailboxes the Saturday before the 2010 election.
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. In his days writing campaign literature, years ago, he only wrote positive brochures. His candidates didn’t always win, but they could sleep at night. John has now been a recovering politician for over thirteen years.
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