JACK SPENCER: Late attacks reveal more about attackers and voters

Ever consider the information nearly all letters to the editor convey? Whether written to register a gripe, counter the premise of an article or any number of other purposes, they usually tell us more about the writer of the letter than anything else.

The same can often be said for political campaigns. As we near the end of this year’s primary races, the campaigns of most candidates that believe they are holding comfortable leads tend to take the high road. They use positive ads and rhetoric, speak in terms of accomplishments and feel little need to bash their opponents. Why should they rock the boat when it looks like the election is in the bag?

It’s a different story when the race is perceived to be close or a campaign thinks its candidate is trailing. We all know that in the final days of elections things can get downright nasty. If we were to believe all of these smear tactics, about the best that could be said about some candidates is that they haven’t set fire to an orphanage lately.

As dirty as elections can get when they are between Democrats and Republicans, the primary elections are often worse. Ads and campaign claims can get so misleading that they turn the truth on its head.

Many readers might remember radio broadcaster Paul Harvey’s long-running show called “The Rest of the Story. In those broadcasts Harvey would focus on an event or personality from history and fill his audience in on facts surrounding the subject that weren’t commonly known. He did this for decades and never ran out of material.

Most, almost all, late election campaign attacks focus on stranded out of context half-truths. Armed with the knowledge of the “rest of the story” voters would see a totally different picture. The reason campaigns wait until late in a race to mount these attacks is that they know there isn’t much time for the other side to set the record straight and get the “whole story” out to the voters.

A classic example of a partial truth attack from the past didn’t occur on the campaign trail, it happened at the 2010 Michigan Republican convention. Governor-to-be Rick Snyder had chosen Brian Calley to be his running mate. A rival for the position got the word out to the delegates that Calley had voted for the “horrible,” “job-killing” Michigan Business Tax in 2007. However, there was a “rest of the story” the attackers left out.

Back in September 2007 Calley was a Republican freshman in the Democratic-controlled House. In spite of his weak political standing, during the nine months he had served, Calley’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle recognized that he understood tax policy better than any of them.

The Michigan Business Tax, burdened by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s demands of revenue neutrality, was going to be passed by the House with or without Calley’s support. The Democrats had the votes to pass it without the help of any Republicans.

Calley saw how the bill could be changed in a way that would still meet Granholm’s demands, and save small businesses about $40 million. But to get this change he would have to agree to vote for the legislation. He was faced with this choice — agree to vote “yes” and make a bad tax a little bit less bad or be politically safe by casting a meaningless “no” vote and miss the opportunity to at least improve the legislation. What would you do? Calley got the bill changed, saved small businesses $40 million and voted “yes.”

At the 2010 convention there was a very tuned-in audience and enough time for Calley to explain why he’d voted the way he had. In addition, there were representatives of small businesses present to defend him. He won the nomination at the convention and became Lt. Governor.

Unfortunately a convention setting is entirely different than the final days of an election. Late in a campaign, there is  practically no chance to tell the “rest of the story” the way Calley did at the 2010 convention.

Misleading attacks launched late in a race are often effective. Voters should be skeptical about any new attack that pops up near the end of an election campaign, especially those designed to spark emotional reactions. Usually, there is an untold “rest of the story” that, if known, would completely alter voters’ perceptions.

Just as a letter to the editor says as much or more about the person who writes it than it does about the topic, election results ultimately say more about the voters (as a whole) than about the candidates.

When voters are well-informed, information is power. When they aren’t well informed, misinformation can gain the upper hand.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.