The Campaign Games

July 31, 2012
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In 1987, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill retired from Congress. The question that was immediately posed to him shortly afterwards was how the quality of people elected to Congress had evolved in his 44-year political career. O’Neill was quoted to say that while “the quality is clearly better, much better, the results are definitely worse.” O’Neill’s personal analysis drew from the facts that were already viewable to us, the American public. Congress had become increasingly educated and refined while corruption had fallen drastically. Yet still, modern-day politicians were, and continue to be, particularly inept in passing legislation and balancing the budget; activities that define their job descriptions and activities that their predecessors seemed to have completed with relative ease. And as the records show, as time has gone by, the issue has simply burgeoned.

During the most recent summer, the United States government nearly entered default until last-minute negotiations saved the government from a literal “shutdown”. The Federal Reserve, an institution meant to be quasi-governmental, or one that should not be interfered with daily DC politics, has had 2 vacancies on its 7 member board because of the inability of the Senate to agree on confirming the nominees selected by the President. And when the unemployment rate was nearly 10% in September of 2011, President Obama’s jobs bill, which was centered around raising taxes on the wealthy, was encountered with heavy opposition by conservative Republicans who saw the President’s actions more as a “political ploy” rather than an “economic savior”. Such illustrated the incompetence of Congress in its ability to come to a compromise on issues, to successfully initiate legislation, and to reduce the administrative lag that hindered the ability of the legislation that was passed to have an immediate effect upon the American people. Yet with all this political bungling and the inability of members of Congress to find middle ground, House incumbent election rates average more than 90% and Senate incumbent election rates are slightly above 80% as stated by the economist Steven Levitt . How do we as a nation let this ineptitude continue? Why is it that studies done by the New York Times show that only 8% of Americans want members of Congress re-elected yet over 90% of Congress is actually given more than 1 term? Yours truly knows why. And you should know why too. Reflect back to the week before you cast your last ballot. The phone calls. The advertisements. The door-to-door workers. All part of an elaborate scheme to win your vote. All part of an elaborate scheme known as the political campaign of democracy, a system that appears noble on the outside, but reeks of foul play within.


Before analyzing the complexities within the political campaign, it is of the utmost importance to first understand what exactly the political campaign is composed of. As defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term “campaign” refers to “a connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result”. In the case of the political campaign, the operations are focused around the result of getting a candidate(s) or a specific party elected into office. Once elected, these people are to reflect the ideals and philosophies of both their constituents and parties. If they do so, they have the opportunity to become a rising star in a field of constantly changing figures. If they don’t, they then become a “one-hit wonder”, or one who serves only 1 term. But for any possible chance for re-election, the nominees must hope to be elected in the first place.

Unlike communist nations, where officials essentially appoint themselves to power and do not relinquish it by maintaining absolute control over the state, the United States has been operating in the phase of democracy that has been popularly referred to as “Jacksonian democracy” for nearly over 180 years. Prior to Jacksonian democracy, the U.S. had gradually phased into the political state known as Jeffersonian democracy from the 1790s to the 1820s after the passage of the Constitution. The core political value of Jeffersonian democracy was republicanism. Republicanism refers to the citizens of the state having a civic duty to aid the state and resist corruption, especially monarchism and aristocracy. The focus of Jeffersonian democracy was aimed towards the “yeomen” farmer as it routinely distrusted the motives of the growing industrial movement. But Jeffersonian democracy failed to take into account the majority; rather it focused on the dwindling agricultural population while seemingly ignoring the needs of the new “common man”, the ordinary city-folk and factory worker. This all changed with the election of Andrew Jackson as President in 1828. America at the time officially entered the phase of Jacksonian democracy which focused primarily on public participation in government through the expansion of the powers of the both the presidency and executive branch. It focused on the principle of expanded suffrage as it felt that it was important for the “common man” to vote. Although at the time, the “common man” was perceived to be a white, male citizen, it was an important step in reforming what had originally been an aristocratic election procedure as only white, male citizens who owned property were the only ones entitled to the vote. Jacksonian democracy signaled a change in the American political system, but it also signaled a new era of political campaigning, an era whose effects continue to linger in our political spectrum today.


In 1828, the key feature of the presidential campaigns of Jackson and his opponent and incumbent, John Quincy Adams was the usage of verbal attacks upon the personal character of the two men. Supporters of Jackson referred to Adams as an “elitist”, “Yankee” , and a “pimp” for allegedly procuring an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian Czar. Adams’ supporters countered these claims by attempting to show Jackson as an “adulterer” and one who had essentially murdered six militiamen, as illustrated by the Philadephia printer John Binns in his “coffin handbill” poster. Jackson won and the history of the specific details behind the presidential race of 1828 eventually faded, but the campaign tactics that utilized were never forgotten as these 19th century political tactics have been highlighted and put to use in 21st century political campaigning.


In 2011, incumbent Democratic candidates Connie Wagner and Robert Gordon staged reelection campaigns for positions in the State Assembly and State Senate, respectively. Along with them joined Tim Eustace, a 54-year old chiropractor who had been serving as the mayor of Maywood Township. This trio was vying to represent the 38th legislative district of New Jersey and the Democratic party in legislature. Their Republican opponents were John Driscoll, the Bergen County freeholder, who challenged Gordon for the State Senate seat, and Fernando Alonso and Rick Goldberg, who challenged Wagner and Eustace for the two State Assembly seats. From the onset, the Driscoll, Alonso, and Goldberg campaign turned to the classic 1828 political campaigning techniques. They spent thousands of dollars on smear tactics such as claiming that the policy choices of Gordon and Wagner had “destroyed our economy”. They claimed Eustace lacked the political clout necessary to make significant reforms needed in local New Jersey politics and they attempted to illustrate through an array of television advertisements and posters, the apparent disconnect between the “Trenton politics” Gordon, Wagner, and Eustace were used to and the “mainstream political views” that the constituents of the 38th district held. As Democratic campaign director Adam Mikos put it, “The Driscoll campaign was a group of jackasses, they felt the only way to victory was through insulting the hell out of us. It was frustrating because it felt like they were just spitting lies by exgerrating the truth and you couldn’t stop their tactics.” Asked about the advertisement tactics the Democratic ticket used, Mikos simply replied, “Well….. you could say they could call us assholes too”.

At the time of all this controversy we refer to as the normal political campaign, I had taken the unpleasant role of being an intern within the Gordon, Wagner, Eustace campaign. My duty was simple: to do the dirty physical labor no other higher-ranking official within the campaign would do. This included the lowly-regarded responsibilities of taking malleable metal sticks and fitting dark blue posters labeled “Gordon, Wagner, Eustace. The Right Choice For New Jersey. The Right Choice for the 38th District. The Right Choice for You.” upon them, answering and making phone calls to angry and annoyed constituents who were tired of hearing the same monotonous message urging them “to cast your ballot on November 8th and make your voice heard!, and running around the variety of streets and avenues within Saddle Brook preaching the gospel of the Democratic Party, specifically speaking about how it was committed to the core values of its constituents, how it understood that all middle-class citizens deserved a tax-cut, and that the 38th District needed reasonable, moderate legislators not radical new-comers. But although I was put to these dry and in many cases, tiresome duties, I myself managed to weed through the layers of the political campaign and see what was going on in the production stages of putting together a successful challenge.

2 weeks before the election, my superior, Chris Hillmann, asked me to put aside those metal sticks and cheap, pay-as-you-go cell phones and assist Carlos Ramirez, our campaign “techie”. Carlos was a short and pudgy 28-year old Colombian, a wizard when it came to communicating with Spanish voters in his native language and a master with the art of photography and the usage of the computer program, Photoshop. To put it simply, the purpose behind Photoshop is to edit pictures that were uploaded to the computer. Photoshop features a variety of tools including cropping the photo, highlighting key features of the picture and making them bolder, and editing the overall theme and background where the subject was located. When it came to 21st century political campaigning, I would later find out Photoshop was also the key to publicly humiliating the opposition. Plopping myself down upon the drab folding chairs that were the staple furniture behind our campaign offices, I asked Carlos what my purpose was exactly.

“Simple question, Rushil. Do you have any experience with Photoshop?”

“Umm, I mean I used it in 8th grade, but really its not my thing.” I stared at him quizzically. I had thought my purpose was to be the high school campaign intern who did the dirty physical labor, not get involved in the more finer aspects of the campaign.

“Well you see Rushil, I like you. You’ve written some good propaganda material for the phone call speeches and I feel like we can use you more when it comes to the publication of some anti-Driscoll campaign ads. It looks like we’ll be fine in the State Assembly races, but this Senate race is way too tight. I just want you to come up with some catchy slogans or ideas that can make Bob look better. You can do that for me right?”

“Yeah, Carlos. I can definitely do that. So, you want me to basically like… come up with something insulting Driscoll almost?”

“Yes, exactly, give me something good. No profanity, the usual stuff. I appreciate it”.

“I got you Carlos.” I didn’t know what to say exactly. You see this is another aspect behind the successful political campaign. Skewing the truth. Making your opponent look bad even when the opponent really hasn’t made a major mistake. Highlighting the opponents’ weaknesses had greater priority than emphasizing the strengths of your candidates. It had begun in the days of Andrew Jackson, when the country did not even include the majority of the Rocky Mountain region, California, and Texas and contained slightly less than 13 million people , and as time went on, such a tactic lasted through history as the nation expanded both geographically and population-wise. Politicians for the past 180 years have felt the urgency to decimate their opponents through insults, mockery of their mental and physical abilities, and questions about their personal and political behavior. In the case of John Driscoll in the 2011 New Jersey local elections, our goal was to highlight his physical look and his lack of separation from Governor Chris Christie. On October 23rd, 2011, Driscoll went up against our candidate, incumbent Democratic Senator Robert Gordon of Fair Lawn. The message that Gordon attempted to send to us to give out to the general public was that Driscoll’s money “is being raised for him” and that such actions “raise questions about how independent he is going to be of the governor.” Carlos directed me towards this quote and while I went to work on coming up with a slogan, he went to Photoshop. Using careful manipulation, he took 2 separate pictures of Driscoll and Christie and connected them together. The resulting image to the ordinary person was two burly men with their arms around each other. For the background, Carlos made it black with dollar bills falling behind the men as they seemingly appeared content and connected. In the little space between the men that was left on the poster, Carlos, in all capital letters, placed the slogan that had took me less than 20 minutes to come up with. “THE 38TH DISTRICT NEEDS A POLITICIAN TO REPRESENT THE INTERESTS OF THE 99%, NOT SIMPLY THE 1%.” Carlos printed approxiamately 200 of the posters and I was given the fine responsibility of hanging up the posters all over Saddle Brook and Fair Lawn.

As the youngest member of the campaign, I had felt a sense of pride that I had contributed in such a manner. It felt good to realize my intellect was respected, that my intelligence was being used against the opposition in a manner that I felt was actually useful. But I wasn’t being used in an ad highlighting the good of Bob Gordon. I wasn’t crafting a piece that showed Gordon really cared about the people of the 38th district. I wasn’t behind the story that illustrated the benefits that Gordon brought to the 38th district. No, I was behind the dirty advertisement that was “stretching the truth”. I was behind the poster that made Driscoll and Christie look even more “fatter” in the eyes of the public when it came to their personal appearance and I had contributed to a fake picture of the two men embracing and looking like thieves. I had come to question the ethical implications behind my actions. This is the path to victory in politics? Lying through the use of modern technology? Giving yourself an advantage by editing pictures of your opponent and essentially making fun of his physical apperance? Why should we stoop down to such a level? Are we even legally allowed to stoop down to such a level? Why must we highlight false depictions of our opposition rather than point out true, real success stories of our own candidate?

For the time-being, these questions would remain unanswered. But one fact we could proclaim as true was our sources of funding. In the case of our campaign, unlike the rumors surrounding the funding of the Republican campaign, many of our funds came from various benefactors. Although Driscoll claimed that Gordon was essentially soliciting funds from unions, that “unions provided 36% of the funds for the campaign”, and that Gordon had “received $5200 from the teacher’s union two weeks prior to the pension vote”, our campaign went on the defensive claiming that we simply “had a whole stack of $50 or less in contributions” from these same unions that we were supposedly “soliciting from”. But Driscoll was right in one aspect, the majority of our funds did not pour in from private individuals or PACs , but instead they came from labor unions. These unions came from various backgrounds, whether it be teachers, construction workers, or manufacturers, and each day executives and workers from the unions came into the campaign offices to volunteer or offer more money to fund our campaign efforts. You see, the American political scenery is like the scenery captured in Suzanne Collins’ best-seller, The Hunger Games. In the novel, in order for the participants in the Hunger Games to survive, they needed the support of sponsors, wealthy citizens who could send them aid in the form of medication, food, or weapons. In return for their gifts, those who received the gifts from the sponsors were expected to essentially win the entire competition ( a competition whose winner was essentially the last one to remain alive). Although less barbaric, the same can apply to American politics. In order for the political campaign to thrive, sponsors were needed. When sponsors showed up, they provided necessary funds, talents, and skills that could help the candidate win election. In return for their work, the candidate is expected to represent the philosophies and beliefs of the sponsors. If they fail to do that, then the candidate faces no chance of winning re-election and in some extreme cases, can face recall .

In the case of our campaign, our goal was to appease the unions in order to maintain their support. Their support was the key to our victory and we could not afford them to drift away from us. Therefore, we consented to their will in many cases. In fact the one experience really stood out…. well, to set the scene: I had been in the back-corner of the office munching on Bavarian Crème donuts, supplied by a local electrician, and using the campaign’s netbooks, supplied by a construction union, to surf the web, mainly going onto Facebook and ESPN.com, when Chris Hillmann walked by and spotted me. In a state that I can best describe as frustrated amusement, Hillmann simply motioned his finger towards me and said one word, “phones”. Taking a napkin, I wiped the powder off my lips, shirt, and jeans, and stood up with the look of a dog begging its owner to not to give it a bath. Hillmann smiled and walked away, I glared at him, grabbed the pay-as-you-go cellphones on the table (not surprisingly, the cellphones were also supplied by a local union), and pulled out the script. The script was simple and short, but the sound of it drove people on the phone insane. “Hello, my name is ____(your name)_____, and I work for the Gordon, Wagner, Eustace campaign. As you may know elections are approaching and we are really looking forward to seeing you at the polls….”. Normally, I would never go past this point because of the individual on the other line screaming at how much of a “fucking asshole” I am to keep calling their home and that I should “go to hell” along with anyone involved in the elections. Now, it would seem right to simply mark and not call that number again because the individuals on the line were clearly agitated. And such is possible with our recent advancements in technology over the past few years, but the unions would not accept such a viewpoint. As one union member told me, “we shouldn’t care about how people feel, we should only care about pestering them enough so that they’ll go out and vote for our guys.”


The important thing to understand from this 25 word quote is that in the art of political campaigning, the economic concept of opportunity cost emerges. The definition of opportunity cost provided by www.investopedia.com is “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Basically, when we’re dealing with opportunity cost, in order to gain or achieve one thing, we must sacrifice another thing. In the case of political campaigning, in order to gain and maintain the support of the unions, we are forced to comply with their wishes, which in some cases means irritating and harassing the majority of our constituents whose interests, we claim, are the “most important thing to us”. Such may apply when a person is in an office of power, but when that person is running to gain a seat in office; morals and ethics are put aside for support from those they conceive as powerful. Am I saying that Gordon, Wagner, and Eustace displayed a lack of ethics and morals in their bid for office? No, but what I am saying is that we didn’t need to go to the extreme of irritating the residents of the 38th District. The campaign could have halted the phone calls to homes that had pleaded with us multiple times that they did not want to be called. The campaign could have told the unions that the interests of the constituents were our number one priority before the interests of the union. The campaign could have drawn a line and declared that the labor unions did not control what we wanted to do. But in the end it didn’t. It chose to listen to the labor unions. And I was forced to continue making those phone calls. People would continue to curse and scream at me, tell me to go kill myself, and in the end, declared they would vote Republican in the election. Yet, the labor unions didn’t care and we had become their slaves, doing what they wished.

Can we really say that this comparison is a bit extreme? How so? Thinking about it, the actions and extremes the campaign went too resembled a starving man willing to do anything for money and food, willing to put aside everything he stood for just for material gain. Personally, my reaction is that such a comparison seems ludicrous, absolutely lacking in knowledge and any common sense--- yet the reason it seems that way to me is because I was apart of that campaign. I had conceded to my superior’s demands, ignoring my own beliefs and ethics, willing to put aside what was right to do anything for victory. I am guilty of being a manipulator within the political campaigning system just as any other person involved.

When reading this piece, I hope the reader understands where I come from. I am not calling for the campaigning system to be reformed. I am not complaining nor am I commending any aspect of the political campaign. But what I am interested to know is the opinions of those interested in the political system and whether they view these issues presented as flaws within the campaigning system? Whether they see the ethical problems that I have seen? And if yes, why does it not bother them the way it does for me? Are they simply in a state of denial, unwilling to view the imperfections in a system they view as perfectly stable? Isn’t politics all about finding the imperfections within something, whether it is a person, place, or piece of legislation? Or is this view another ploy in gaining votes?

On November 8th, 2011, Senator Robert Gordon was re-elected to the State Senate, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner was re-elected to the State Assembly, and Tim Eustace, by joining these two incumbents, cruised to an easy victory as he too was elected to the State Assembly. The campaign was a success; we had managed to get our candidates, the incumbents, back into office. We had sufficiently overpowered the Republican opposition in terms of financial backing, manpower, and sheer determination. But when I walked out of the victory celebration held at American Legion Post #415 in Saddle Brook, the questions posed in the previous question flashed through my mind. I came to the conclusion that this was how politicians consistently came about to victory. Through smearing and lying about their opponents and bowing down to the interests of the powerful groups. The opinion may be harsh and narrow-minded, but it opens up a much larger debate. A debate whose limits seem unbounded and questions the morality and ethics behind the modern American political campaigning system. But it’s best to end the discussion here. As David Foster Wallace put it, “there are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.”





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MJones2000 said...
Aug. 8, 2012 at 11:38 am
Incredible writing. So in-depth, absolutely intriguing. It was a bit too much and the beginning a bit dry, but I found it to be a fantastic piece of work.
 
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