dirty tricks

dirty tricks

dirty tricks

“Dirty tricks” are actions taken by a political campaign or candidate to damage their opponents that may involve unethical, distasteful, or illegal behaviors.

Political candidates and parties have used dirty tricks dating back to the early years of the American Republic. In the 1828 election, President Andrew Jackson was accused of executing his own men in war, adultery, and cannibalism by supporters of John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s supporters responded by accusing Adams of procuring sex workers for the Russian czar and using public funds for his billiards habit.

This term’s use in the political world, however, is not found until 1963 according to Merriam-Webster. Dirty tricks gained traction thanks to the machinations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. During the 1964 election, CIA operatives infiltrated the campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to disrupt his efforts against Johnson. The Johnson campaign also briefly ran the infamous Daisy ad, a television spot that implied Goldwater would lead the U.S. into nuclear annihilation.

Dirty tricks went from an insider term to a publicly known concept due to the Watergate scandal. Nixon and his administration orchestrated a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in June 1972. The Nixon campaign also employed operatives to damage the reputations of Democratic leaders prior to the general election. These acts along with the subsequent cover-up led to a potential impeachment and Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows sustained use of dirty tricks in English language publications following Watergate. The 1988 presidential election highlighted modern uses of dirty tricks with the race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

The Bush campaign employed advisor Lee Atwater, who created the template for future methods of dirty attacks. Atwater was the mind behind the “Revolving Doors” TV ad that tied Dukakis to a murder committed by furloughed convict Willie Horton.  This ad and rumors spread by Republicans about Kitty Dukakis burning an American flag during a protest flipped a Dukakis polling advantage into a Bush victory.

In the 21st century, technological advances and the prevalence of independent political groups have enhanced the power of dirty tricks. In 2004, ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to discredit Democratic nominee John Kerry’s campaign against President George W. Bush. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president deployed dirty tricks ranging from asking Russia to hack opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails to the use of social media to spread rumors of Clinton’s health.

Examples

Roll Call (July 2, 2019): “With a single tweet Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump again harked back to his 2016 election victory and suggested Democrats are poised to use dirty tricks to prevent him from winning again.”

The Washington Post (March 9, 2018): “As his orders to Colson show, Nixon was at the center of this dirty tricks campaign. He devised specific plots to attack his enemies, creating a climate of corruption that led to Watergate.”

The Guardian (February 25, 2008): “Barack Obama’s campaign team today accused Hillary Clinton’s beleaguered staff of mounting a desperate dirty tricks operation by circulating a picture of him in African dress, feeding into false claims on US websites that he is a Muslim.”

roorback

A false, dirty or slanderous story used for political advantage, usually about a candidate seeking political office.

In 1940 the Chicago Tribune offered this definition: “A roorback is a false report about some alleged misdeed in a candidate’s past, often based on forged evidence, circulated in the final days of a campaign. It is timed for climactic effect when the candidate will not be able to expose the fraud before the voters go to the polls.”

According to Museum of Hoaxes, the term is derived from Baron von Roorback, the invented author of an imaginary book, Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States, from which a passage was purportedly quoted in an attempt to defame Tennessee Gov. James K. Polk in the 1844 presidential election.

whisper campaign

A whisper campaign is a method of persuasion using rumors, innuendos or other sneaky tactics to create false impressions about a political candidate while not being detected spreading them. For example, a campaign might create use automated phone calls or anonymous flyers attacking the other candidate.

The speed and anonymity of communication made possible by modern technologies like the Internet has increased their ability to succeed.

While the manner in which you conduct a whisper campaign will depend on your ultimate goal, eHow lists a few general tips about how to get a whisper campaign underway.

push poll

A “push poll” is a form of interactive marketing in which political operatives try to sway voters to believe in certain policies or candidates under the guise of an opinion poll.

More akin to propaganda than an actual unbiased opinion survey,  a push poll is most often used during a political campaign as part of a candidate’s election strategy or by a political party to gain advantage over a rival or rivals.

While push polls are not illegal, many consider them to be unethical, and they generally fall under the umbrella of “dirty” or “negative” campaigning. They often include personal attacks, fear mongering, innuendo, and other psychological tactics to lead those being polled to believe a specific point of view or turn against a specific candidate.

Most push polls are concise and to the point, so that a large number of people can be called in a relatively short period of time, so as to have a maximum effect on public opinion.

As noted by the New York Times, a large number of reputable associations have denounced push polling as a sleazy tactic, and in certain states push polling is regulated.

In fact, over the years, many jurisdictions have tried to enact legislation to control the use of push polls, but such laws have come up against opposition from those who swear by the practice. In 2012, a proposed “push poll law” in New Hampshire ran into head winds from pollsters concerned that such laws would “outlaw message testing, preventing firms from deploying legitimate survey research on behalf of their clients.”

In 2007, a Roll Call opinion piece suggested that the term itself is misleading, noting: “The term ‘push poll’ never should have entered our lexicon, since it does nothing but confuse two very different and totally unrelated uses of the telephone.”

Richard Nixon was one of the pioneers of the push poll, and in his very first campaign in 1946, he used the practice by hiring operatives in his California district to call Democrats and warn them that his opponent was a “communist.”

Most agree that push polling is a negative tactic, but not all campaigns agree on when a survey is actually a true measure of political opinion, and when it is in fact a push poll.

During the 2000 Republican primaries, the campaign of John McCain accused the George W. Bush campaign of push polling in South Carolina by asking questions such whether you would be more likely to vote for or against McCain after learning that his “campaign finance proposals would give labor unions and the media a bigger influence on the outcome of elections.” The Bush camp denied that its survey was in fact a push poll. As described in Slate magazine: “This controversy, which has consumed the media for the past week, misses the point. Every campaign poll that asks about an opponent’s flaws is a push poll.”

This point of view was reiterated by a CBS News article 7 years later, when it was alleged that Mitt Romney’s campaign was a victim of push polling centering on his Mormon faith: “A push poll is political telemarketing masquerading as a poll. No one is really collecting information. No one will analyze the data.”

Swiftboating

An untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign.

The term comes from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book that challenged Kerry’s military record and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities. Kerry himself had served for four months as a swift boat commander in Vietnam.

The term “swiftboating” soon became used to describe political tactics of the group.

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