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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stupid Political Stunts

After writing my last two posts, about the ludicrous Joe the Plumber scam and the probably-bogus “tightening presidential contest,” I had a dark thought. What if McCain somehow pulls this out? My God, it’ll be attributed to Joe the Plumber! And we’ll see a lot more of this kind of stupid stunt in the future.”
Due to the eternal popularity of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy (after this, therefore because of this), which confuses coincidence with causation, copy-catting questionable political gimmicks is a very common phenomenon.
A good example was the “abolish the car tax” message adopted by 1997 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jim Gilmore (the very man who’s running a hopeless Senate campaign against Mark Warner this year, after a brief and largely invisible presidential bid). Gilmore went on to crush Democratic rival Don Beyer (a car dealer, ironically), and for several years, Republicans running in virtually every state that had any sort of tax on automobiles made “abolishing the car tax” a centerpiece of their campaigns. Someone finally noticed that it wasn’t working much of anywhere, and the mania finally abated.
In retrospect, there were plenty of reasons Gilmore won in 1997, but it was far too easy to focus on the gimmick and go with it.
An even more vivid example of questionably successful gimmickry, similar in its fundamental stupidity to the Joe the Plumber furor, occurred in my home state of Georgia in 1992. A Republican warhorse, Paul Coverdell, was running against incumbent Democratic Senator Wyche Fowler. For most of the campaign, Fowler maintained a large and steady lead in the polls. One day, according to the legend, a beehived grandmother from South Georgia named Margie Lopp called up Coverdell HQ and sang them a campaign jingle she had composed.
Now Margie’s jingle was not only content-free (its deepest line was : “Let’s put Paul Coverdell in the Senate and put Wyche Fowler out!”), but gratingly annoying in a bad nursery rhyme sort of way. For whatever reason, the Coverdell campaign made it the sole sum and substance of about ten thousand radio and television ads. Political observers universally mocked it, and even Coverdell’s staff later admitted they were flooded with calls from supporters complaining about it.
But lo and behold, on Election Night, Coverdell ran surprisingly well, and though Fowler ran ahead of him, an archaic Georgia law requiring a majority of the general election vote for victory knocked the incumbent into a rare runoff. I’ll never forget watching local election coverage from the Coverdell party, where a gaggle of young Republicans were defiantly singing the Lopp classic. Coverdell went on to win the runoff (thanks mainly to a predictably small turnout), and headed to the Senate, where his main accomplishment was quarterbacking the Senate Republican fight against health care reform. Post hoc ergo poster hoc: Margie beat Wyche Fowler, and indirectly, Hillary Clinton.
As it happens, Coverdell’s win, despite the polls, wasn’t that surprising. Aside from the weird 50% requirement, Georgia was beginning its big trend towards the GOP about then (Bill Clinton won the state very narrowly in the presidential contest that year). And Fowler, a good and relatively progressive Democrat, had a bad habit of personally antagonizing key voting blocs (his hostile interaction with gay/lesbian activists led a significant number of Atlantans to vote Libertarian, feeding Fowler’s non-majority). My guess is that Coverdell didn’t win so much as Fowler lost. But like Gilmore’s car-tax gimmick, Coverdell’s Lopp jingle was the most obvious factor that accompanied his surprise win.
I recently ran across a semi-academic article quoting Coverdell campaign staff as suggesting that the jingle boosted their candidate’s name ID in an insidious way. I suppose this is the same theory by which some advertisers deliberately screen obnoxious ads that consumers at least remember (a theory I try to fight by, for example, swearing I will never buy insurance from GEICO until it not only kills but apologizes for its interminable “caveman” series). But it’s a dubious proposition at best.
There’s an interesting denouement to this saga. Coverdell died suddenly in 1999, and Roy Barnes appointed then-Democrat Zell Miller to the Senate seat. Miller had to face the voters for the remainder of Coverdell’s term in 2000, and his Republican opponent, Mack Mattingly (the very man that Fowler beat in 1986 to get to the Senate in the first place) dutifully brought Margie Lopp on board to compose a jingle. Mattingly lost decisively.
Maybe I’m looking at this whole thing in the wrong way. If John McCain does pull an upset, and Joe the Plumber gets the credit, then quite likely a whole host of future GOP politicians will slavishly imitate the stunt, with contrived and even imaginary “real people” exemplifying the sturdy folk virtues and heartland values of conservatism. I can’t imagine a better formula for big Democratic gains in the future.

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