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Herding the Cranks



These are the Republican primary voters in Missouri:

Tom Kiley, my pollster, turned up some findings that seemed crazy to me. For example, less than one quarter of the likely Republican primary voters believed that Barack Obama had been born in the United States. These were the voters who could help tip a Republican primary to an archconservative, but that conservative would have a hard time winning the state. Yes, it was a three-way primary of equally viable candidates, but a subset of energized people with strong religious convictions and serious aversion to gay people, public schools, immigrants and reproductive choice could help elect someone like Akin.

This is the candidate any Democratic nominee for Senate would prefer to run against:

His extreme positions on social issues and ridiculous public statements made him anathema to many independent voters. He sponsored an amendment that would define life as beginning at conception, thereby outlawing common forms of birth control. He voted against repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation. When the Affordable Care Act was being debated, he stood on the House floor and asked for God’s help in keeping the nation from “socialized medicine.” In 2008, he claimed in a House floor speech that it was “common practice” for doctors to conduct abortions on women “who were not actually pregnant.” He had made speeches calling for America to pull out of the United Nations and claiming the government had “a bunch of socialists in the Senate” and a “commie” in the White House.

How to lead A to B? Well, publicize the fact that Akin is an utter crackpot, not so much for his policy views (fundamentally consistent with the typical Republican member of Congress) as for his inability to keep from saying the quiet parts loud. And then imply that voting for Akin will fill establishment Republicans/liberals with helpless fury:

Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with the idea for a “dog whistle” ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would be heard only by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad.

Easy as pie, when you think about it.

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  • Snarki, child of Loki

    The GOP Konservative Klown Kaucus has been trying to rape US democracy for some time now, but the Body Politic has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

    Unfortunately, not completely effective ways.

    • CrunchyFrog

      The most perfect indictment of the Placebocrats is that the Republicans have handed the abortion issue to them on a silver platter and they still try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

      I have come to the conclusion that Joe Lieberman is the most honest Democrat. At least his positions tell you that he is a really a Republican. The others are all just Tony Blair. Or Bill Clinton. Or Barak Obama.

  • Malaclypse

    See also this theory, which I love.

  • humanoid.panda

    What I don’t get is why she is writing about it: while everyone knows that’s exactly what she did, laying it out there openly makes future use of the strategy less likely,no?

    • NonyNony

      laying it out there openly makes future use of the strategy less likely,no?

      You’d think so. Except that what she did was identify a candidate in a three-way race that a plurality of Republican voters would prefer to vote for anyway but who would be toxic to most people outside that plurality of voters. And then assist that candidate in getting his message out to those voters.

      I don’t see how this strategy fails unless you get new voters. The only way it fails is if one of the other two candidates drops out and throws his support behind the other in a bid to short-circuit the crazy. Which requires some altruism on the part of one of the two candidates as well as some self-awarenesss of who is likely to win an election (neither of which are much in evidence usually among politicians, especially in close-fought races).

      And you’d think that publicizing the rodent-coitus being performed by the other party would be enough to short-circuit this. But we’re talking about the angry Know-Nothing demographic of the GOP base – to them it would come off as “you guys are a buncha rubes who the liberals are playing like fiddles – support a moderate RINO candidate instead of the guy you really want”. Which is not a message that these guys want to hear. So as with everything else they don’t want to hear they’ll call it liberal media bias and ignore it.

    • joe from Lowell

      What I don’t get is why she is writing about it

      She wants us to all start telling conservatives they’d better not vote for Trump?

      • Pat

        Pretty much. She’s also likely prepping liberal voices not to freak out over Hillary’s upcoming ad choices.

        Honestly, I think its time that conservatives got to field exactly the candidate they want to field. We all know they secretly hated voting for McCain and Romney. They run the party: they should get to choose the candidate.

    • dmsilev

      It wasn’t any secret; at the time, multiple commentators pointed out what her campaign was doing.

      • humanoid.panda

        Yeah sure. But why would a sitting senator and, not, say, a campaign strategist on search for clients, would talk shop like this?

      • matt w

        And given that her campaign apparently called Akin successfully begging him to get his best ad back up on the air, Akin’s campaign knew what she was doing too.

        • Pat

          Akin was in such straits, he had to take all the help he could get.

    • Hogan

      She laid it out openly at the time and it didn’t do any harm.

      At the end of the ad, my voice was heard saying, “I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”

      If God didn’t want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.

      • joe from Lowell

        And why should that even seem strange? An uncontested nominee starts in on her likely opponent a little early. That it worked, and he won the nomination, just adds to the cover.

  • Warren Terra

    less than one quarter of the likely Republican primary voters believed that Barack Obama had been born in the United States.

    When I see results like this, which if taken literally would seem to indicate mass psychosis, I think it’s important to consider the alternate, non literal explanation: that the respondents giving this insane answer are using it to convey their intense hatred of Obama and rejection of fellowship with him, rather than actually embracing ridiculous conspiracy theories.

    On the other hand, it is Republican primary voters, we can’t exclude the mass psychosis theory.

    • Malaclypse

      “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      I don’t begrudge doing a victory dance on Akin’s shattered political dreams, even if it is a bit early for “Weasel Stomping Day”

    • djw

      It’s agnotology as shibboleth.

    • somethingblue

      “The median Republican primary voter says he’s a psychotic racist, and I take him at his word.”

    • Yankee

      Many or most folks seem to feel that the ARE entiteled to their own facts. Good postmodernism knows that “facts” are very slippery things, but this is BAD post-modernism.

    • Bill Murray

      I think it is authoritarian followers doing what they do. If the authorities you trust tell you (either explicitly or with properly heard dog whistles) that Obama was really born in Kenya, that is what you will believe

      • witlesschum

        It’s a mix of that and people giving the “fuck you, libs” answer in my opinion.

    • wengler

      I hated Bush, but it never made me deny basic facts about him.

      • Brad Nailer

        Probably because it was the facts that made you hate him.

        • Pat

          The facts also lead me to view his little brother with a lack of respect.

    • Bruce B.

      I used to think it was basically posturing and could be boiled down to “I hate him this much”, but I’ve changed my mind.

      We’ve had posts and comments here before about people – particularly aging white folks – who start off watching Fox because it’s something on for distraction and end up believing it. And I’ve seen the same thing at work in myself. I hung around with a Discordian-ish trolling social scene for a while on Usenet and FidoNet, where making ridiculously exaggerated claims of various right-wing natures to draw out amusing reactions from the true believers was a thing. (It’s the same general scene that led to the formulation of Poe’s Law.)

      What I noticed was that a significant number of the guys I was spending time with drifted from pretending to be cranks drifted into being cranks. In the debris of that community I find far too many sovereign citizens, Gamergaters, and other such crud. As Devo put it, “We become what we do.” Guys who started off listening to Bell and Limbaugh in search of mockable things to riff on ended up alarmed about Agenda 21, explaining how Jews set up 9/11, and venerating The Bell Curve.

      I find it very easy to believe that a lot of the weirder stuff you’ll find in movement conservatism started off as basically content-free rhetorical excess for the purpose of expressing emotion with little to no regard for content. But I also believe that when you repeat stuff enough, the barriers between expression and belief wear thin, and that it takes a lot of work to stop such things from sinking into your skin.

      • witlesschum

        Ancedote time.

        I happened to overhear a woman yesterday assert that four of the Republicans were beating Hillary Clinton in the polls, which explained why she was offering this college plan which was a big pander to college students to get them to vote for that The Taxpayers (you could hear the caps) would have to pay for.

        She was elderly, white and kinda nasty-sounding in a particular Midwestern way, so I’m assuming she heard this from Fox News. I thought it was an interesting example of how facts get their proper bullshit coating for people who want to believe a certain way. I’d guess she doesn’t know many people who’d vote for Clinton, so why wouldn’t she believe the thing she’d want to believe anyway? And it’s a clever lie for Fox or whoever to tell, because it suggests that the Republican primaries really, really matter because only some of them can beat the demon Clinton and therefore you’d better watch Fox to hear about them.

      • Origami Isopod

        Well, we’re social animals. Our opinions are shaped as much by the company we keep as by other factors, regardless of how the Alex Jones worshippers like to think they’re “independent thinkers” (unlike all the “sheeple”).

        There was a Boston Globe article in the last few years, which I wasn’t able to find online shortly after the print version came out, on how the best way to change opinions across large groups is to have influential people in those groups adopt and promote those opinions. (If memory serves, the author’s primary example was challenging a lenient outlook toward sexual assault by athletes within communities made up of athletes or fans.) Eventually, the old opinions become distasteful at best, anathema at worst.

      • joe from Lowell

        I came up with the following theory during the 2008 campaign:

        Conservative make something up because there is some momentary political advantage to saying it.

        Then, a million conservatives in the media obediently repeat it in unison, because that’s what they do when there’s a message to push.

        Then, they all start believing it, because they just saw it confirmed by three or four sources they consider quite reliable.

        And then they take that line they just made up and make it the core of a political effort.

        Hurr durr, everyone hates Pajama Boy! Right guys? Uh…guys?

        • Bruce B.

          That sounds right on when it comes to this dynamic, yeah.

    • UserGoogol

      I don’t think it has to be either. For instance, imagine someone who doesn’t really care that much about politics but is broadly conservative by affiliation. They’ll be vaguely aware that people keep saying that Obama wasn’t born in the United States but not be aware that’s a heavily contested hypothesis. So a pollster asks them if Obama was born in the United States and they think “wasn’t he born in Kenya or something?”

      I mean, how many people (of any party) even remember that you have to be a natural born citizen to be president?

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    it might be harder for McCaskill to do that again, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t still work other times and places

    (edit: meant as reply to humanoid.panda @ 12:32)

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      Mass psychosis means that the same thing can be done to them, over and over.

      “Is our wingnuts learning?” That would be “no”.

      • hylen

        No, they isn’t.

        • Pat

          It’s weirdly beautiful, this conservative inability to learn. We can tell them exactly what we’re going to do, which worked in our favor before, and they’ll mount the same response they did last time.

          How do we turn every social issue into gay rights? That’s the big question.

  • Steve LaBonne

    I normally hold McCaskill in minimum high regard, but today I’m making an exception. Well played, Senator!

  • Gwen

    Claire McCaskill is Batman. Or at least, won using a Batman Gambit.


  • Derelict

    This is the natural end result of getting the Tea Party and the other lunatics fired up enough so that they control the primaries. These days, few GOP candidates can expect to survive a primary fight if they don’t establish and maintain a record of ever-increasing rightwing stridency.

    It is perfectly acceptable jui-jitsu to turn this against them. Either by getting the Teahadis to run complete nuts like Akin, or making sure the GOP base is so fragmented that most stay home out of poutrage on election day.

  • brugroffil

    Some are wondering if what she said she did amounts to illegal campaign coordination:


    specifically concerning sharing polling data about ad effectiveness, not her general trolling of primary voters strategy.

    • witlesschum

      That would be very amusing if her campaign crossed that line, because that would be both her making illegal contributions and Akin accepting them. Maybe that was her plan all along, then she could run against him and say “He’s a crook!!!!!!”

      Though, given that this was all well-known at the time you’d think the Republicans would have made a complaint if the facts could support such a charge. Especially after Akin started rape philosophizing and wasn’t going to win anyway, it would have been worth it to burn both their own candidate and McCaskill.

  • Gregor Sansa

    So Obama should “NOT” agree to a one-on-one debate with Trump, and in such a debate he should “NOT” dismissively use wonky arguments and then walk out when Trump gets excessively belligerent.

  • MacK

    I just finished reading James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom one volume history of the Civil War (I had read other histories but decided to read this on a Ta-Nehisi Coates recommendation.) The first few chapters are interesting in that they manage to establish how otherwise apparently rationale people, and people that no one immediately dispatches to a “rubber room” can express bat-shit crazy, irrational, ludicrous views, and find that the majority of the people around them, because those views are expressed vehemently enough, with enough conviction, can embrace those views. In the case of the deep south, it was astonishing how people without slaves, who may even have been economically hurt by slavery, accepted this nonsense.

    Here is the catch – the Northerners considered all of the emanations of the south to be bullshit – in part because they were morally and intellectually wrong, but also because of the rhetorical excess displayed. But the south actually believed its own bullshit! Consider the reality, the Republican base believes the bullshit, they believe the anti-woman stuff, the Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya bollox, all of it. They think Trump is a hero, not a zero….

    There is this idea that Trump won’t go very far in the primary process. Now I do not think he will ultimately be the Republican nominee … but don’t delude yourself into believing that Todd Akin or Trump are/were getting votes because a substantial part of the Republican base don’t agree with them… because they do!

    • somethingblue

      Sometimes you meet, coming down the leafy path along which you are walking, a man dressed as Napoleon; as he talks to you, you look at him with distrust, pity, amusement–carefully do not look, rather. But as the two of you walk along, and people come up with wallpaper designs full of Imperial bees, rashly offer their condolences on the death of the Duc d’Enghien, ask for a son’s appointment as Assistant Quartermaster-General of the army being sent to the Peninsula, you realize that it is not he but his whole society that has “lost touch with reality.”

      — Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

      • rea

        Why the hell would anyone offer Napoleon condolences on the death of the Duc d’Enghien? That would be worse than a crime; a blunder!

    • MacK

      Merriam Webster definition of crank:

      : a machine part with a handle that can be turned in a circular motion to move something

      : a person who has strange ideas or thinks too much about one thing

      : a person who is often angry or easily annoyed

      Cambridge Definition:

      a person who has strange ideas and behaves in strange ways.

      Here is the problem -these ideas may be wrong, but they are not that unusual. Indeed in the midst of the Republican base, the primary voters, the fox viewers, maybe we are the cranks.

    • citizen

      No, no no, there is a different book to read if you want to understand why people drank the koolaid in the South (and the North, till they stopped):

      Mark Ames, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion in America

      Careful though, the more you understand, the harder to go back.

    • witlesschum

      I didn’t think Trump would get far in the primary process because I thought Republicans didn’t really like him any better than anyone else and that his meandering bullshit wasn’t really different than that from the rest of the candidates so why would they pick the guy who’s a huge joke over Ted Cruz. But, apparently, Republicans are saying they either actually imagine themselves voting Trump or are enjoying playing along for the time. I guess they don’t think he’s a joke? Or they think he’s a pretty fun joke.

      • Pat

        They turn to politics as entertainment. Trump is far more entertaining than the other guys. So they root for him; they want him to win. They already see him as a winner, and after all, this is a contest. So shouldn’t Trump come out on top?

  • Bitter Scribe

    You could probably fry a dozen eggs on that huge, liver-spotted forehead right now.

  • witlesschum

    As much as I admit to really enjoying McCaskill dragging Mehmet Oz in front of Congress to stammer through his excuses for performing ridiculous quackery for hire, it was really bugging me that she didn’t specify what brand of beer. Or explain why her daughters thought that would be particularly amusing. Why not a beer bong? Specificity is the soul of narrative, Senator.

    • matt w

      The brand of beer could be a politically fraught issue in Missouri.

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