by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, California
June 2, 2003
MAILERS ARE THE ULTIMATE POLITICAL CON GAME
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- In the next 12 months, you'll come to realize the importance of those three little words in the middle of the oath taken in court. Witnesses are sworn "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." It has become painfully clear that "the whole truth" gets left behind in political advertising.
We are speaking here of that centerpiece of American politics, the political mailer. Whether slick four-color foldouts on expensive stock, tabloid style leaflets tricked up to look like legitimate organizational newsletters, or just simple postcards, they are all trying to win your vote. There are certain principles the discerning voter ought to recognize as the mail pours in.
Rule 1: Every one of those mailers was paid for by somebody. That somebody expects to make his investment back. Republicans take money from insurance companies, manufacturers, oil companies and real estate interests, just to mention a few. These interests consider their political contributions to be investments. Democrats take lots of money from teachers' unions and lawyers.
Corollary to Rule 1: The more mailers you receive from any one candidate, the more you can be sure that the candidate is beholden to the people who paid for those mailers.
Rule 2: Ignore any and all endorsements from law enforcement groups. These have nothing whatsoever to do with a candidate's fitness to serve in office. The most famous of these organizations, at least in political circles, is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
The CCPOA is the prison guards' union. Back in the 1990s, they supported Republican governor Pete Wilson. For the past couple of elections (apparently looking at the poll numbers), they jumped on the Gray Davis Democratic bandwagon. The prison guards have been well rewarded for their generosity in the form of favorable legislation and substantial salary increases, first by Wilson and then by Davis.
Rank and file police endorsements have more to do with standard labor issues such as work rules and the right to collective bargaining, and generally very little to do with whether or not the candidate will be an effective crime fighter. Endorsements from police chiefs and other police management groups have more to do with budget issues and can be similarly discounted.
Rule 3: Ignore any political ad on tv that has patriotic music, a deep voiced narrator, and flags waving in the background. It is hard to get past the manipulative elements in these commercials to consider the validity of the message. Remember, if it feels like they are trying to manipulate you, they are.
Rule 4: Political mailers will try to attack incumbents based on half a dozen votes. Remember that your representative makes thousands of votes in the typical legislative session. His political opposition hires someone to go through the entire record, vote by vote, just to find a few votes that can be attacked.
This is known as opposition research. Most people don't understand that many votes are procedural: one party will offer some spurious amendment just to embarrass the opposition, which then has to vote it down to preserve something better. It is possible to accuse any incumbent of practically any bad thing - being soft on crime, a spendthrift, or waffling on kiddie porn. All you have to do is find one vote that could be construed in this way, no matter that in reality it was not intended as such but rather had the reverse effect on the pending legislation.
Rule 5: Lists of people endorsing the candidate must be viewed with care. In the general election, pretty much every candidate can ask for and receive the endorsements of other members of his political party. In primary campaigns, some party endorsements can be more meaningful, but even here, there is often an element of old debts being paid or retiring incumbents endorsing their chiefs of staff.
There is one kind of endorsement that can be taken seriously. Interest group endorsements coming from strongly ideological organizations, unions, environmental groups and the like all have one thing in common: They offer assurance that their chosen candidate will be loyal to their particular principles. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, but it is rare that the candidate will stray far from the fold. Of course this says nothing whatsoever about the candidate's competence, ethics, or sincerity, but if you want to support a particular flavor of ax grinding, this is the way to vote.
Rule 6: There is one kind of political mailer that is so over the edge that some otherwise sane people have suggested a legal ban. Known in the trade as the slate mailer, it is typically a simple postcard-sized piece that endorses a whole slate of candidates. Slate mailers are often misleadingly titled in an attempt to fool the voters.
For example, you might get a postcard that identifies itself as the Democratic Voter Guide. When you pull out a magnifying glass and look at the small print warnings, you will find that this mailer is not sent by the Democratic Party but by either an advocacy group for some Republican candidate trying to pull in a few Democrat votes or a commercial operation that has taken money from one or more of the endorsed candidates on its list.
The same game can be played on the other side in exactly the same way. Likewise, you may get a slate mailer calling itself the Environmental Voter Guide or the American Conservative Voter Guide. What they each have in common is that some marginally sleazy operator has collected money from candidates to print their names.
One clue that you are looking at a dishonest slate mailer is that the list of endorsed candidates will be all of one party except for one or two lesser known candidates from the other party. If you are a loyal Republican picking up a slate mailer calling itself the Republican Voter Guide and prominently featuring George W Bush's picture, you might want to check whether the candidate for the state legislature is a Democrat whose party affiliation has conveniently been left off.
Candidates pay to be included in these misleading mailers in the hope of turning a few opposition voters in a close election.