Friday, November 9, 2012

Campaign Lies

by Sheila Connolly

It's over.  The election is finally over. Seems like it's been going on for years, doesn't it?

Mark Twain once said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Now we can state clearly:  everybody lies.  Only in politics, it's called "spin."

A long time ago I took a college-level course on statistics.  I did this not because I was fascinated about how to manipulate information to serve an end, but because it was a requirement for admission to an MBA program I planned to apply to, back when I was working for an investment banking firm.  Let me be perfectly clear:  in all the years I worked in business, I used statistics exactly once, when I proudly charted not the increase in membership applications at a nonprofit museum where I worked, but rather the rate of increase. In other words, people were applying for membership faster.  It made a pretty graph.

We have endured months of political commercials, from both national and local candidates, on an hourly basis at all times of day.  After a while you can tune them out mentally, or hit your "Mute" button and ignore them.  You've seen them all before, anyway—dozens of times.  But what is curious about these back to back ads is that they are saying diametrically opposed things—and they can't both be right.

There are statements like, "Candidate X voted 100% of the time to support the Save the Aardvarks Bill."  Correct, because the bill came up only once (and was roundly trounced by the opposition party, as Candidate X knew it would be) when s/he voted for it. Who does this statement influence?  The aardvark lovers already know the voting record for every candidate on their favorite issue; people who wouldn't know an aardvark if it bit them really don't care. But the general impression the statement gives looks favorable for the candidate, right?

Statements like this aren't lies, exactly; they are manipulations of the truth. The creators (diligent campaign hacks, er, experts) choose their words with great care, making sure that nothing is exactly untrue (in the legal sense) but that whatever they say puts their candidate in the best possible light for the target audience.

But how stupid do the wordsmiths think we voters are?  When you see conflicting commercials one after the other, you know they can't both be right.  It has been said that the vast majority of voters know who they're going to vote for from the beginning, and they seldom change their minds in the course of a race.  Voters have even been known to vote for incarcerated candidates, because he belongs to the right party and he's been good to them, or so they think (if wasn't their money he embezzled, right?). Party loyalty runs deep—and voting a straight party ticket avoids all that decision-making stuff.

So the target for ad-crafters is the Undecideds, who can't seem to make up their mind until they hold the ballot in their hand on Election Day.  Do they flip a coin?  Do they vote because they hated Candidate Y's pink necktie, or Candidate Z's clunky earrings, in the last ad they saw? Conversely, do they reject a candidate because they hate his or her gravelly or squeaky voice? The candidate may be a brilliant person, with a mind like a steel trap and honest to the core, but can his or her election hinge on vocal chords or wardrobe choice?

But campaign staffers still go after voters with words, rather than brute force or cash offerings (most of the time, anyway).  They believe that by choosing the right, the perfect words, they can convince us.  The words matter, and I suppose that we writers should be happy about that.


Sandra Parshall said...

Of course most people know from the start who they'll vote for. The truly undecided voters are a small minority. The voter who can be wooed from one side to the other by advertising is virtually non-existent. The ads and campaign appearances have one purpose: to stir up enthusiasm and make sure a candidate's supporters actually take the trouble to vote. Since I always vote, no matter what, my candidate's ads have no effect on me. I'm as likely to mute those as I am to mute the opponent's ads. I'm so glad it's over!

Anonymous said...

We must all be glad it's over.

boots9k at wowway dot com