In Purple Pennsylvania, Hijinks and Misinformation
Dateline: Hershey, Pa.
Wearing my home-made Kerry-Edwards shirt in a swing state two days before the election, I expected to hear my fair share of political debate.
The Marks traveled to Hershey, Pa., for the weekend, a family tradition (three years running) on Halloween weekend. Heading west on Interstate 78, we saw billboards for both presidential candidates, as well as a bounty of lawn signs, bumper stickers, buttons, and even a "W '04" sign hanging from a crane, conveniently parked to be viewed from the highway.
Kerry may win the state, but you wouldn't know it in this part of the state, 12 miles east of Harrisburg, well beyond the cities that anchor the east and west edges of the state -- Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In other words, this part of purple Pennsylvania should have an obvious red tinge.
The amusement park didn't open until 2 p.m. today, so we headed to the Hershey Outlets, just up the road, to kill a couple of hours. Waiting in the checkout line in a store selling kitchen items, an older woman asked to read the scripts on my shirt and my wife's. Nodding approvingly, she told us that she was a Bradley volunteer in 2000, and supported Kerry-Edwards this time around.
"You probably have seen all the Bush signs in the lawns," she said, and we told her we had. "My (Kerry-Edwards) sign has been stolen so many times. ... I finally learned to take it in at night."
She also told us about a letter that had been mass-mailed to homes in Palmyra, which neighbors Hershey. She'd received a copy of the letter, too, which apparently had a fake state office logo on its top, and a message from Gov. Ed Rendell that advised that because of the vast number of newly registered voters, polls would likely be crowded. As a result, the letter went, Republicans should vote on Tuesday, and Democrats on Wednesday.
I told her about a story I'd read in the Newark Star-Ledger yesterday, which said that in South Carolina, black voters had received a fake letter, supposedly from the NAACP, saying that any would-be voters with parking tickets or outstanding alimony payments would be arrested when they tried to vote on Tuesday.
Elsewhere at the outlets, and at the park itself, I was pleased with the number of young people -- and by that, I mean people who appear to be college age -- who asked to read the shirts or said things like "I like your shirt." I replied to them, "Bring 10 people with you on Tuesday!" More often than not, they accepted that advice positively.
One Hershey employee -- who just turned 18 -- asked to read the shirt, then said that she probably wouldn't vote. When I asked why, she said she was torn, because she was against the war in Iraq but she was also against abortion.
I said that I understood her feelings, but said that although the Democratic Party platform supports a woman's right to choose, that didn't mean they were pro-abortion. I cited a statistic I'd heard on Air America recently, that during the eight years of Clinton's presidency, abortions dropped by 50%. She said she appreciated hearing that, but even still, she didn't think she'd vote on Tuesday.
Later in the day, I bought a cookie from a Hershey employee, also college age, with a "W '04" button on. He saw my shirt and asked me why I supported Kerry. I said I had a bunch of reasons, but first and foremost, it was because I thought Kerry generally supported people, and Bush generally supported corporate interests, and that as a result, I usually disagreed with Bush.
I asked him why he supported Bush. He said, "I like what he's done, especially in Iraq."
I said, "But you know that the reasons Bush said we needed to go to Iraq have been proven false. There weren't any weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam had no real ties to Al Qaeda."
"Well, that's your opinion," he said.
"No, really," I replied. "Even Bush admits that he was surprised there was no weapons of mass destruction. There was a big report from our chief weapons inspector."
"That's your opinion," he said. "When we send in SWAT teams, we'll find out what's really there, and we'll find out how much they helped Al Qaeda."
"Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11," I said, amazed at what this guy was thinking. "Even the government admits that. Even Bush said so."
"I don't know," he said, in one of those voices that meant, I don't think you know what you're talking about. He continued: "Iraq even helped with the first bombing of the World Trade Center."
"That's not true," I said.
"I'm done talking," he said. "Have a nice day, sir." And then he walked away.
I rejoined my wife, and related the story. We agreed that either this guy was as dumb as a stump, or he'd heard a variation of this story along the way, possibly listening to talk radio or reading a conserative web site.
But, as I've written before here, there is a lot of misinformation among Bush supporters. In the last couple of weeks, MSNBC reported a poll finding that 42% of Bush supporters believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A similar percentage though Saddam helped Al Qaeda with 9/11.
A separate survey conducted in September found that among eight key campaign issues, Bush supporters agreed with Kerry on five. The problem: They didn't realize Kerry held those opinions, and more often than not attributed those beliefs to Bush. The survey found that, for example, the average Bush supporter thinks Bush supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and that Kerry supports tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans.
Can one learn much from an isolated example of campaign hijinks, or from an isolated voter's ignorance? If they were truly isolated examples, then no.
But the news has been filled with examples of Republican foul play: indictments in South Dakota and New Hampshire, employees caught on tape throwing out registrations in Nevada and Oregon, the fake letter in South Carolina, etc. Have there been examples of Democratic wrongdoing? I've heard conservatives talk of widespread abuse, but have only heard one example cited, regarding a handful of fake names on new voter registration cards in Ohio. I'd love to hear more tangible examples, but when I ask my more vocal conservative friends, the most common response is, "Do you really think that the Republicans are the only ones playing dirty tricks?" My reply: Give me examples, not spin.
And as for voter ignorance, the aforementioned surveys do tell a story. A person can draw one of two conclusions: Kerry and the DNC have failed to make their positions clear, or the Republican misinformation campaign -- such as when President Bush says Kerry's Iraq plan is to "cut and run" -- have confused voters into not knowing the facts.
Driving home tonight, I picked up KDKA out of Pittsburgh. There was a call-in show, and the topic was the election. A caller said it best, "On Tuesday, you have a choice: Kerry or scary. Happy Halloween."