The act of spreading negative rumors about a political candidate, in order to discredit him or her in the eyes of voters. This can also be called a whispering campaign. According to Merriam Webster, the phrase dates back to 1920.
It’s usually hard to trace whisper campaigns back to their source. That’s the point, of course: whisper campaigns are meant to spread innuendos anonymously. The internet, and especially social media, have made this much easier.
Of course, whisper campaigns have existed for a long time. In 2000, George W Bush was competing with John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove, began a whisper campaign to convince voters that John McCain had loose morals.
He had his staffers circulate a poll asking voters, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” At the time, McCain was campaigning along with his daughter, Bridget, who was adopted from Bangladesh. That whisper campaign is widely credited with winning South Carolina for Bush.
Some years later, there was a long-lived whisper campaign asserting that Barack Obama was not a natural-born US citizen and that he could not be elected president. This particular whisper campaign was different depending on where you first heard it. Some versions said that Obama was lying about his birthplace (Hawaii) and that he had not, in fact, been born on US soil. Other versions said that Obama was born with dual citizenship and that this disqualified him from becoming president.
In a separate-but-related whisper campaign, rumors circulated that Obama was secretly a Muslim and that he was pretending to be a Christian. The New York Times eventually tracked that rumor back to a Chicago-based blogger named Andy Martin. “Everybody uses my research as a takeoff point,” Martin told the New York Times. He added that some people did take his blog posts “and exaggerate them to suit their own fantasies.”
Whisper campaigns don’t always happen around election season, of course. In 2021, CNN reported that leading Republicans were conducting a whisper campaign to try and get former president Donald Trump impeached and convicted for his alleged role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. The Republican leadership, apparently, was highly motivated to make sure that Trump did not run for office again.
According to CNN:
The ongoing Republican whisper campaign, according to more than a dozen sources who spoke to CNN, is based on a shared belief that a successful conviction is critical for the future of the Republican party. Multiple sources describe this moment as a reckoning for the party.
“Trump created a cult of personality that is hard to dismantle,” said a former senior Republican official. “Conviction could do that.”
And sometimes, whisper campaigns are all about elections in the future. In 2019, The Hill reported that Republicans were spreading rumors about Hillary Clinton’s plans to run for president.
According to The Hill, Republicans were whispering that Clinton might suddenly burst into the 2020 race:
“She is running,” Steve Bannon said on Fox Business earlier this month. “She’s just trying to decide how to fit her way in.”
The whisper campaign, potentially setting up a rematch between Trump and Clinton, has been going strong ever since.