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Spin Control: Campaign rhetoric to ramp up with ballot drop

Then-Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican, and Former Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini, a Democrat, debate in October 1972. Evans defeated Rosellini in the November election, winning a third term.  (Cowles Publishing)

Ballots for Washington’s Aug. 1 primary go out in the mail this week, which means most registered voters will have them by next Saturday.

The ballot drop, as it’s called, usually shifts most campaigns into a higher gear. That means many readers will see a dramatic rise in political messages in their mailboxes and online, many of which will feature candidates speaking of themselves in the third person or the first-person plural, sometimes called the “royal we.”

Those messages also may be rife with campaign clichés that might need interpreting, even if they seem familiar. Here’s a guide to help translate some of them:

“This election is a marathon, not a sprint.” Often used to deflect the fact that a candidate is trailing in the polls, it’s actually an admission that he or she got off to a bad start and has to catch up. While sprinters and marathoners train differently and use different strategies, a good distance runner knows better than to fall too far behind.

“The only poll I care about is the one on Election Day.” While it’s true that polls reflect current sentiments rather than predicting the future, this is a pretty strange thing to say if the campaign is spending money on polling. It is an article of faith among seasoned political observers that any candidate trailing in the polls who makes a reference to Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential victory is doomed.

“Let’s let the people decide.” This is a way of sounding like a populist while merely stating the obvious process of an election. It can backfire, as in 1988 when Democrat presidential candidate Gary Hart dropped out of the race after reports of an extra-marital affair, then re-entered the race with “Let the people decide” slogans on bumper stickers and lapel buttons. When most voters in the early primaries decided they would support someone else, Hart dropped out a second time.

“I’m going to listen to the people.” By this candidates generally mean they will listen to people with whom they agree and act accordingly. They may listen to people with whom they disagree but not act at all.

“I’m going to bring together stakeholders.” Just exactly what the stakes are, and who is holding them, is never clear, but it suggests they’ll go a step beyond listening. It’s a fancy way of saying that they’ll meet with people who have vested interest in an issue or problem. The problem with vested interests, however, is that one interest often excludes another.

“I will seek consensus-driven solutions.” Usually a sign that a candidate has no solutions of their own, and hopes to find some people who will come up with some.

“I will pursue real-world solutions.” As opposed to solutions in Bizzaro World or the Marvel multiverse?

“I will be your voice.” Sounds nice, but people get elected primarily to act, not talk. Most elected officials have thousands, or tens of thousands, of constituents, and a candidate can’t speak for all of them. A variation of that is “I’ll be your advocate,” which is equally problematic because if you need an advocate on a local issue, it usually means there’s an opposing side for whom the candidate is equally promising to be an advocate. Both suggest the candidate doesn’t have their own values, or those values are malleable enough that they will bend them for you.

“I’m not a politician.” Usually said in the same tone as one might say “I’m not a serial axe-murderer,” it suggests that the candidate isn’t smart enough to realize that campaigning for office makes one a de facto politician.

“Children are our future.” This is a safe line to toss off because the only counterarguments would be “children aren’t our future” or “grandparents are our past.” But many candidates just use it as filler and stop there, not explaining what kind of future they want children to have or how they plan to make it happen.

“I’m going to represent We The People.” Technically not a cliché, but a phrase borrowed from the Preamble to the Constitution in an effort for the candidate to score points for patriotic feelings. But it should actually cost them points for terrible grammar. Represent is a verb that requires an objective pronoun like “us,” and the people part is redundant. In the Preamble, “we” is correct because it’s the subject of verb “…do ordain and establish” later in the sentence. It arguably would be grammatically correct if the candidate means he or she wants to represent the original “We The People” who signed the Constitution. But that comes with certain downsides such as taking voting rights away from more than half the people currently registered.

Note on last week’s quiz

As several alert readers noticed first thing last Sunday, the correct answer to the person who said “I regret I have but one life to give for my country” was Nathan Hale, which was B in the quiz as printed. The mistake was a result of my moving questions and answers around in a final draft, and not rechecking that the letters still lined up.

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