Republican whispering campaigns flower in Iowa.

Republican whispering campaigns flower in Iowa.

Republican whispering campaigns flower in Iowa.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 8 2007 6:04 PM

Getting Pssssst-y in Iowa

Whispering campaigns reveals the power of soft sweet slander.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

If you're a Republican presidential candidate in Iowa and you aren't the target of a whispering campaign, you should hang it up. As Saturday's GOP straw poll vote approaches, everyone who's anyone has someone gossiping about them. Mitt Romney, for instance, is now being accused by his rivals of buying votes. Anonymous sources are sending e-mails, making phone calls, and pointing activists to Web sites like one labeled Iowa Values Not for Sale.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a Slate political columnist, the moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation, and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback are engaged in a multiround spat over sub-rosa attacks. Both camps have questioned the other's Christian fiber. Tom Tancredo is being attacked in phone calls and e-mails for changing his position on term limits. In a Web video he accuses Brownback of telling pro-life voters Tancredo is pro-abortion. "We do expect more from people who at least call themselves Christians and have great family values," says Tancredo, demanding an apology.

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With so many Christians sliming Christians to win the votes of other Christians it seems time for someone to yell, Repent! But no one is backing off because so much is at stake. Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and John McCain are not actively participating in the straw poll, which means that for the long-shot candidates this is their best and perhaps last chance to come in second in a poll outside one conducted by their immediate family. Those who fail may have to end their campaigns the way Lamar Alexander did after his dismal straw poll showing in 2000.

If the candidates weren't working so hard to win the Iowa straw poll it would be hard to take the vote seriously. This is the political equivalent of a scrimmage in which players are encouraged to use steroids. It's not an official vote, but a fund-raising mechanism for the party, wherein participants must first buy a ticket in order to cast a ballot. The more candidates pay their supporters to vote, the better the party does. Campaigns buy their supporters tickets, bus them to the Iowa State Center in Ames, Iowa, and in some cases put them up for the night and buy their food. They also try to sway them with fancy hospitality tents dripping with BBQ and country music. None of this is allowed in a real election. The looser rules promote looser behavior. You can buy a vote with money or by maligning your opponent.

A whisper campaign is distinguishable from mere gossip because it has an animating force propelling it. There's a lot of chatter, for example about Bill Clinton, but no one is actively trafficking in it yet. Before the 2000 GOP South Carolina primary, anonymous calls were placed to voters saying John McCain's adopted daughter was illegitimate. By the standard of historical whispering campaigns, the Iowa stuff of 2007 is pretty benign. No candidates are being accused of filming porn in the basement, cross-dressing, or supporting Alberto Gonzales. Some of what's being passed around anonymously—like clips of stories headlined "Republican Voters Still Don't Know Rudy Giuliani Supports Abortion"is sneaky but probably still inbounds.

When you're courting Christian conservatives, though, it's a powerful attack to claim a candidate is buying support from people who would otherwise oppose his record on abortion. After receiving an anonymous e-mail from someone called "Iowa Conservative" that listed Iowa supporters Romney had put on his payroll, Kelly O'Brien, the Republican Party chairman of O'Brien county, wrote to a state senator backing Romney: "So support of Baby Killing is for sale ($1,000 per month) … we're not as stupid as you think. Neither my vote nor my support are FOR SALE."

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New technology has made it easier to dish such dirt. You don't have to slip a flier under a windshield wiper anymore. No more cutting out letters from the newspaper. You can unleash a little havoc with a few keystrokes or by launching a Web page. Slime by keystroke is more effective during the caucuses and primaries than in the general election because your audience is comprised largely of activists who are already known. Many of them are probably on a party e-mail list or supporter list from a previous GOP campaign. Those lists are available to lots of different campaigns. The group participating in the straw poll is so small and so active, they're still trading gossip from the last campaign.

For cash-strapped candidacies, a whispering campaign is also a great value. They don't cost much, and they go to the heart of a voter's assessment of a candidate. Because the information conveyed usually exposes a secret or pretends to make a hidden discovery, they immediately call into question a voter's broader trust in the candidate being targeted. A whispering campaign is also an easy way to take on well-funded candidates. No one is going to compete with Mitt Romney using traditional methods. He's blanketed the airwaves, has phone banks dialing into homes multiple times a week, and he's spending good money to make sure his voters have an air-conditioned ride to the voting booth.

There's no evidence the new attacks on Romney are coming from a particular campaign, and they don't need to be officially sanctioned anyhow. Volunteers can empower themselves; low-budget campaigns really encourage volunteer enterprise. If a volunteer is caught, campaigns can distance themselves and say they had no idea. (Sometimes campaigns actually don't know, as was the case when a Mike Huckabee supporter mentioned Sam Brownback's Catholicism in a way Brownback found offensive.)

The problem for anyone trying to benefit from a whispering campaign is that because they are so easy to manufacture, voters tend to treat the e-mails and phone calls like spam. To elevate the attack, then, you have to sell your product with data, facts, and the appearance of veracity. If everyone's got something bad being peddled about them, the whispers that work best are the ones with data, images, and a message—which is why the anti-Romney e-mails that direct you to a video of him expressing his pro-choice stances are particularly effective.

The Romney campaign is not addressing the whispering campaigns directly under the time-honored rule that when you're explaining, you're losing. Romney is the front-runner in Iowa, and since his campaign wants to talk about something other than his pro-life record, they don't care to bat back the charges directly.

For candidates farther down in the polls, a whispering campaign is something to crow about. It means you've arrived. You're willing to risk taking a hit for the underlying charge if you can make people think you're enough of a player to be worthy of having someone attack you. The only thing worse than being slanderously whispered about then, is not being whispered about at all.