Silly season is here. Negative and untrue messages are now hitting the mailboxes of unsuspecting voters. And yet, many of these missives will only be remembered only for their lack of veracity, or the sordid individuals and organizations that put them out.
In the past, these messages would be devastating. But the rise of absentee ballots has changed all of that. Campaigns must now get their messages out early. If a campaign waits too long, the voters will have already punched their ticket. And those going negative early can backfire, because candidates who are slimed have a chance to respond. If a campaign is exposed for lying in attack ads, their credibility is diminished and their candidate is punished at the polls.
The goal of “hit” pieces is not to get caught, or for the candidate to have plausible deniability if a message blows up as fraudulent.
In the past, Independent Expenditure (IE) committees allowed candidates a way to deny responsibility for negative messages while reaping the benefits. But the public isn’t buying that old bait and switch operation anymore. Voters are punishing candidates who benefit from a lie. They no longer distinguish between a candidate and their supporters.
If an IE goes rogue, the candidate it prefers often ends up suffering at the polls, and that is good for the process. IEs are simply contributions to a candidate that are not counted in their fundraising tallies.
Voters are questioning the content of mailers more than ever. If something appears so outrageous it comes off as a lie, they simply throw the piece away. The more ugly the mail the faster it goes into the trash.
That said, candidates under attack must spend time responding to accusations, because silence is acquiescence in politics. The bigger the lie, the more important it is to counter with the truth. Some people still believe that libel laws prevent the printing of false information. That is not the case in politics. If it were the jails would be filled with dishonest candidates, malicious consultants and even a few journalists.
Candidates have to trust voters to make informed decisions, even if it is sometimes difficult to rely on the masses, who have their own lives and interests. The public’s attention span for politics continues to diminish, partly based on the low level of discourse they’ve seen in the past.
Such tactics may have once worked, as misleading messages were sent at the last minute and no one had time to challenge their veracity. But while some candidates and interest groups have not evolved, elections have. And that is good news for the honest, hardworking and worthy candidates.