For weeks before Tuesday’s primary, North Carolina was flooded with political information, misinformation and disinformation.
You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait ‘til the fall.
When you’re a purple, swing state, you’re everybody’s target. You’re a guinea pig for whatever new twist, trick or technology some communications genius — or evil genius — develops.
Politics is a fast adapter. Especially presidential campaigns. Whenever a communications innovation shows promise, somebody’s campaign tries it. The candidates and campaigns that move fastest go farthest.
Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered radio with his rich, reassuring voice. John F. Kennedy won on TV when he looked cool and Richard Nixon looked shifty. Nixon won when Roger Ailes stage-managed his TV town halls. Ronald Reagan mastered movie-star stagecraft. George H.W. Bush, for all his patrician manner, won thanks to race-baiting negative ads. Bill Clinton played his saxophone on late-night TV and answered boxers-or-briefs on MTV. Barack Obama’s campaign mastered online organizing. Donald Trump’s tweets overwhelm the news cycle.
What will it be this year?
Mike Bloomberg introduced us to flood-the-zone TV and online ads. So did Tom Steyer, to a lesser extent; it didn’t work for him.
Pete Buttigieg turbocharged his campaign early by accepting any invitation to any TV talk show anytime. He didn’t last.
Elizabeth Warren surged last year with long selfie lines and personal calls to donors.
Bernie Sanders has staying power thanks to his online army, a formidable small-dollar fundraising machine.
In the U.S. Senate race, a super-PAC backed by Mitch McConnell meddled in the Democratic primary to help Erica Smith. The group helped Smith not just by saying she supports Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, but by telling Democrats she’s African-American. Smith didn’t have much money to deliver her own message.
Cal Cunningham got his own boost from a Democratic super-PAC, VoteVets, that’s close to Chuck Schumer. Cunningham’s campaign ran ads countering the pro-Smith super-PAC. So did a group called Carolina Blue, which presumably is not about UNC basketball.
Then there are misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
Facebook took down a pro-Trump fake news site called “North Carolina Breaking News” that was posting bogus stories, one of them in Russian.
WRAL reported that a progressive group, Piedmont Rising, ran an ad that looked like news criticizing Senator Thom Tillis on health care.
Then there’s whatever the Russians are doing.
President Trump got mad when the nation’s intelligence agencies reported that Russia is again trying to influence our elections. But the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is co-chaired by North Carolina’s Republican Senator Richard Burr, reported in October that Russian trolls "sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin."
Politics has always been bare-knuckled in North Carolina. Tough competition fueled innovation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Senator Jesse Helms’ National Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative TV ads. That’s how they won the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Senate races, defeating incumbent Robert Morgan and Governor Jim Hunt.
Democrats learned a hard lesson, and Hunt won governor’s races against Jim Gardner in 1992 and Robin Hayes in 1996. John Edwards unseated Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998.
Dirty tricks go way back here. In 1950, racist flyers and ads — “White People Wake Up!” — helped Willis Smith beat Frank Porter Graham in a historic U.S. Senate race. Graham’s followers learned how to fight back, and Terry Sanford beat I. Beverly Lake in 1960.
Tom Ellis, Jesse Helms’ political godfather, used to say, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” It certainly ain’t in North Carolina this year.
Gary Pearce is a former political consultant and frequent Pilot contributor. He was an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt, 1976-1984 and 1992-2000.