The dirty truth about dirty tricks in South Carolina politics

The McCain Blame

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John McCain campaigns at College of Charleston on Feb. 18, 2000, a day before the state's Republican primary. - C-SPAN
  • C-Span
  • John McCain campaigns at College of Charleston on Feb. 18, 2000, a day before the state's Republican primary.

It's a tale that has been often told. In the days leading up to the 2000 Republican Party primary in South Carolina, a sinister smear crawled from the foulest pits of campaign hell. This horrible rumor crept through phone lines, emerged from fax lines, and oozed from the xeroxed flyers left on parked cars at the Piggly Wiggly. People heard it, people read it, people believed it. And so on Primary Day 2000, scores of previous John McCain supporters cast their ballots in favor of the race's clear frontrunner, George W. Bush. 

So what pray tell was so shocking that would-be McCainiacs walked away from the celebrated POW and Arizona senator? Only the worst possible thing you would ever say about a politician in South Carolina: John McCain fathered a black child. Surely, no one in this state would ever cast a vote for a man who was rumored to have done such a horrendous thing. By Strom Thurmond's tuft of burnt orange hair, never. 

Today, the 2000 smear is a thing of legend, and every four years when the men and women of South Carolina vote in the GOP presidential primary, it's trotted out onto the midway stage in all its deformed and devilish glory, a beast as backroads fearsome as the Lizard Man and as inarticulate and howling mad as Sarah Palin at a Donald Trump rally. Right now, just a little more than a week away from the 2016 South Carolina Republican primary, all the pundits and reporters and day-trade tweeters can talk about is how the Palmetto State is a viper's den of dirty politics.

Too bad it's all bullshit.

Yes, there's plenty of bad behavior around here, but a flyer on a car or a push poll, well, those dirty tricks pale in comparison to out and out voter fraud and other misdeeds. Believe you me, I know what happened with Illinois state's attorney candidate Alicia Florrick. I know she planted votes. I know all about the Chicago way. That my friends is real corruption.

Wait. What's that you say? That happened on a TV show. 

Of course, it did, and it has just as much relevance to the present narrative as stories about McCain's illegitimate black daughter. 

See, what those who love to tell the tale of the McCain smear usually fail to mention is that the Arizona senator never had a chance in South Carolina. Bush held a commanding 50-point lead over McCain in the weeks leading up to the primary, and although that lead was slipping as Primary Day approached, McCain had two big strikes against him. One, the evangelicals didn't like him but adored Dubya, an ex-alkie, Promise Keeper. Two, McCain called the Confederate flag a symbol of racism. In Year 2000 South Carolina GOP politics that was enough to doom a man, and John McCain was most assuredly doomed. 

But the legend persists, and as more people hear it, the more it takes hold. After all, it's in our political blood. Or at least that's what they say.

The most notorious dirty campaigner of all time, Lee Atwater, was born here, and if the actions of the man that created the infamous Willie Horton ad can't define our state as a whole, by golly, I don't know what else can?
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond introduces Lee Atwater as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee on Nov. 18, 1988. - C-SPAN
  • C-Span
  • U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond introduces Lee Atwater as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee on Nov. 18, 1988.
Then there's the alleged push poll that deep-sixed former Greenville Mayor Max Heller's campaign for governor, a push poll that dared to tell voters that the Jewish Heller didn't believe in Jesus. Evidently, this came as a shock to voters who were unaware that the Jewish faith more or less views the New Testament as an unauthorized sequel.

And who could forget Alvin Greene, the mystery man of Manning, S.C. If you're to believe the conspiracy theorists, ballot boxes were tampered with, snatching victory away from Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl, the Democratic Party's establishment candidate. It didn't matter that Rawl had barely campaigned or that few, if any, campaign signs were ever put up for him. I know I never saw one.

Most recently, there was that unpleasant business between Will Folks and our own governor Nikki Haley. In the cloak-and-dagger world of Palmetto State politics, Folks' confession that he had an "inappropriate physical relationship" with Haley either was designed to destroy her campaign — it was surging after an endorsement from Palin — or it was responsible for Nikki's victory — voters flocked to her because they weren't going to stand for dirty politics. Either way, it's a win for the dirty politics myth. 

Here's the problem: This stupid myth asks you to believe that voters will hear or see a damning rumor for the first time and change their vote based solely on that unsubstantiated piece of information, despite all that they know already about that candidate. South Carolina voters may not trust the liberal media, but they'll trust an anonymous man on the phone or a dot-matrix flyer that just showed up in their mailbox. Are you kidding?

Now, I'm not saying there aren't morons out there. There are. But by and large, those people don't vote. I mean, just look at the low voter turnouts. Do you honestly think that the 20 percent of South Carolinians who actually turn out on Primary Day are so disinvested in the political process they can't recognize a lame trick? It's the other 80 percent I worry about. Keep those dunces from the polls.

This isn't to say that there aren't dirty tricks in South Carolina politics. There are, but they're probably no worse than anywhere else. The big difference is that behind-the-scenes folks in South Carolina politics, the operatives and consultants and party boys, have a reputation to uphold, and so they perpetuate the lie and the pundits and reporters regurgitate all that blowhard BS. The point is this: these Palmetto State politicos don't want the dirty truth to get out there. No matter how much we repeat the lie, their celebrated skullduggery does not and will never sway a large-scale election, at least not in South Carolina.

In Chicago though, that shit's for real. Just ask Alicia Florrick.

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