COLUMBIA, S.C. — Here’s a story, the gist of which will sound familiar to anyone living in South Carolina: Natalie Barrett, a 53-year-old schoolteacher from Westminster, got a robo-call earlier this month and ended up furious.
It started off simple enough, an automated man’s voice asking her age and gender, then quizzing her on which Republican candidates she liked. But when she selected Sen. Marco Rubio as one of her choices, she said, things got nasty.
“That’s when he said, ‘Did you know that Marco Rubio and the Gang of Eight are for amnesty?’” she recalled in a phone interview. “And then the gentleman said he’s for letting 11 million illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. and that he was for letting Syrians cross the borders freely.”
Barrett said she found the call — which continued to say negative things about Rubio before taking shots at Donald Trump for being a supporter of eminent domain — to be “negative” and “unfair,” but she couldn’t figure out right away who it was from. The voice said the poll was conducted by some place called Remington Research.
She told her Rubio-supporting friend about the call; her friend told the campaign. They said they knew exactly what Remington Research was: a consulting firm started by Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe.
“These tactics are becoming all too common in this race and indicative of our opponents’ campaigns that are willing to say or do anything to win an election,” Rich Beeson, Rubio’s deputy campaign manager, said. “This is nothing more than a deliberate effort to peddle false information in the hopes of deceiving voters.”
But, of course, nothing is that simple in politics.
“We’re not doing any robo-polls in South Carolina,” said Chris Wilson, Cruz’s director of research. “It’s not us making those calls. Anyone can make those calls as Remington Research to screw with reporters and make Jeff look like he’s doing something.”
This, in a nutshell, is South Carolina a week before the highly contested Republican primary: a cloudy tincture of desperation, paranoia and umbrage, with plausible deniability for everyone. It’s a mad scramble to make every other candidate look bad, either by playing dirty or accusing an opponent of playing dirty.
And so, the media has flocked South, left taciturn New England behind in search of a quiet spot — the corner booth of a bar, perhaps, or a well-appointed office downtown — hoping to be blessed with those magic words, you didn’t hear this from me, but. South Carolina: home to whisper campaigns, dirty politics, back-alley knife fighters, and other cliches. A land where consultants share shibboleth with bank robbers: No fingerprints, please. It’s a week before the primary, and the Palmetto State is all anonymous fliers and unlisted numbers.
In fairness to the natives, South Carolina’s electoral nastiness may be a matter of timing more than geography. The window to win the nomination is rapidly closing, and there’s little advantage in holding back.
“The hallmarks of the South Carolina dirty tricks are: high impact, low tech, high deniability,” said Joel Sawyer, a GOP consultant based in Columbia. “The more salacious the better. And the people that do these kinds of things know their audience — they are going to play to the fears of the blue-collar South Carolinians and know these tricks are going to be impactful.”
The late GOP campaign consultant Lee Atwater is remembered as the patron saint of aggressive South Carolina politics. In 1980, he used push polls to link Democratic congressional candidate Tom Turnipseed to the NAACP — a scary notion for some white suburbanites — and spread rumors that as a depressive child Turnipseed had been “hooked up to jumper cables.” Atwater later became an adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and chaired the Republican National Committee.
His tactics are still very much in play. It feels like just yesterday when anonymous phone calls went out around the state asking primary voters in 2000 if they would be “more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if [they] knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
It’s not all bad news. In 2012, Peter Hamby, then at CNN, published an article maintaining that “South Carolina’s dirty political reputation outlives reality.” He quoted state Sen. Tom Davis insisting that “people have become sort of jaundiced about the whole dirty-trick thing. . . . They see some of that ambush stuff, and they take it with a giant grain of salt.”
But there is also evidence that things may get worse. It used to be that, under state law, robo-callers could only conduct their business on answering machines and voice mails; that if anyone picked up the phone, the call would go dead. But last year, courts found the law to be unconstitutional. Which is why Natalie Barrett spent five minutes feeling her anger build as she answered automated questions about Marco Rubio the other day.
As far as the political dark arts are concerned, this was relatively insipid fare and may have entirely missed the mark.
“I was pretty sure it was from Cruz,” said Joseph Bowers, a 24-year-old student who said he got a similar call. “The last question was to give a reason why people should vote for Ted Cruz in the primary, and I said they shouldn’t at all.”
Nicole Walukewicz, a 58-year-old who has retired to take care of her sick husband and her mom, said the robo-call she got represents everything that’s wrong with politics today.
“The implication was that Rubio wasn’t going to protect the American population from potential terrorists coming into the country,” she said. “It just felt like Cruz, or whoever was behind it, was willing to lie to get the presidency.” She said she found the tactic “especially offensive” considering what went down in Iowa, where members of the Cruz campaign told caucus-goers that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race when he wasn’t.
Wilson, of the Cruz campaign, said he’d heard of these alleged robo-calls in South Carolina from a D.C. reporter who was sniffing around the story.
“He read the text to me,” Wilson said. “One of the questions was close to what we’re doing, but there was one key difference. There was a line basically from our TV ad that said the Gang of Eight bill would have accepted refugees from Syria, but what he read to me said they were from “Muslim countries.”
That seemed like a clue to Wilson.
“Who would put the word ‘Muslim’ into a question?” he said with someone in mind. “What candidate would do that?”
Could it be that a Donald Trump lackey had something to do with this? Could someone from team Rubio have done it just to make Cruz look like a huckster? Or could it have been someone from Cruz World the whole time? We may never know.
So some advice for South Carolina residents during election season: Don’t pick up your phone and don’t trust anything you hear. These conspiracies can go all the way to the top. Or, so it seems, the bottom.