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No New Lies: How To Win a Close Election

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This is the second instalment in our series No New Lies, where we explore how misinformation, disinformation and conspiracies from history help us understand the politics of the present. This week, the story of what Donald Trump has learned from the 2000 election.


In the late 1960s, George W Bush and his brother Jeb were at boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. At weekends, the boys would take their laundry the 18 miles down the I-95 to the home of their aunt and uncle; Nancy and Sandy Ellis, to have it washed and pressed, rather than take on the arduous task themselves. In the washing machine, their football socks mingled with those of the Ellises’ son, John Prescott Ellis. John Ellis describes the family he grew up in as “Huge and close. Everybody went up to Maine in the summer. Christmastime was in Connecticut. So we saw everybody. The Bush cousins, the Walker cousins, etc., etc., etc. And we really grew up with the George Bush kids. Jebbie and I, because we're exactly the same age, would go to visit my grandmother and grandfather together in Washington and Florida.” Three decades later, all three boys’ expensive educations and political dynasty connections were paying dividends. George W Bush was the Governor of Texas, “Jebbie” was Governor of Florida. And John Ellis was 22 years into a high-powered career in media and political communications.


On November 7th 2000, George W Bush faced Democratic Vice President Al Gore in the race for the 43rd President of the United States. To say the race was close is now something of a truism: it’s gone down in history as the archetypal example of a race “too close to call”. The race originated so many of the tropes that we now associate with presidential elections that it’s difficult to imagine what it was like before. For one thing, when it all came down to Florida, the power of the swing state couldn’t have been more sharply drawn. For another, the outsized graphic systems we now take for granted were born at this point: there are been red and blue states shown briefly on the screen in 1996, but now Tom Brokaw sat in front of a giant map of the United States for the whole evening, the colors steadily being filled in real time, a stark visual representation of how close the race really was. Now, the brightly colored infographics and 20ft maps are so recognisable that I recently saw them parodied on a TV show my toddler loves, during a hotly contested woodland election to determine who would get to organise the Summer Fair.


Cemented too, was the new role of the media in modern elections, the televisual digestion and regurgitation of the raw numbers coming out of polling places had never been so influential, not only upon the American people’s experience of election night, but on the result itself. By 2am, the race was down to the wire, and it was clear that Florida would be the deciding state. All the major networks had previously projected that Gore would take the state, before retracting their projections when Bush seemed to have taken the lead. The pressure to “call Florida” one way or another was mounting, the two campaigns sitting on a precipice. Despite the back and forth between the projections, surely a clear indication that calling the result either way was risky, by 2.16am the tension was too much, and the choice of one man left the Gore campaign’s hopes tumbling from a height. That man, in charge of the result projection machinery for Fox News, was John Prescott Ellis.


There are few pictures of Ellis online, mainly due to the similarity of his name to that of the British politician John Prescott, but the ones that do exist suggest a doughy bespectacled man with a side parting, a bit like a melted Jeb Bush. Once Ellis called Florida for George Bush Junior, the other networks fell like dominoes, first NBC, then CBS, CNN, and finally ABC, all within four minutes of the Fox call. Fox News’ CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes denied any impropriety on the part of John Ellis, particularly the suggestion that he had actually been passing information based on his projections to the Bush campaign. Ailes told a Congressional Hearing that the network's “investigation of election night 2000 found not one shred of evidence that Mr. Ellis had revealed information to either or both of the Bush brothers.” Ellis’ own account was somewhat different. He told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that he telephoned his cousins at 2am, right before he made the call. “Their mood was up, big time,” he said. “It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth -- me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now, that was cool.”


Even after the Fox call, the results were still coming in, and they were far from conclusive. Eventually, there were recounts in four Florida counties, and the decision ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Evidence of significant voter suppression of African American voters in Jeb Bush’s home state was raised by the NAACP, but never fully addressed. None of these developments were enough to overturn the original decision though, because the 2.16am call set the narrative. In calling the race for Bush, and indeed, in phoning ahead to give him and his team advance warning that he was about to make the call, Ellis allowed Bush’s campaign team to do that most important of things: to take control of the story. In an alternate world, if the night had concluded with no winner declared, then the events which followed may have had the tenor of two partisan camps squabbling over an unclear result; if Gore had been able to claim the initiative, the Bush campaign could have been cast as anti-democratic autocrats trying to cling on to power. But, in the story which was told, the win belonged to Bush, and Al Gore’s requests for recounts were cynical attempts to steal the election. 


In setting the narrative of the election result, Bush’s team ensured that all of the future wrangling around the outcome of the election, the recounts, the minute dissection of “hanging and pregnant chads”, the Supreme Court case, the press field day, and the noisy demonstrations outside the Capitol building, conformed to the existing framework of Bush’s electoral “win”. People, the story said, were either prepared to accept the result, or they were sore losers. Bush’s supposed win might be overturned, it might be upheld, but the fact of his victory was cemented.


The late Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion, written on behalf of the five-justice majority that decided to halt the Florida recounts, is a stark example of the power of narrative at work. Scalia wrote: “The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner, and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election.” Some critics took exception to this framing, believing it to demonstrate excessive bias towards Bush. While such a bias seems self-evident, Scalia’s thinking makes more sense when you consider it this way: that the threatened “irreparable harm” was not to George Bush as a private citizen, but as the President-elect, and thus to the health of the nation, should his presidency be damaged; however Bush was only president-elect on the assumption that he had already won.


If Bush’s team took control of the election narrative with a lightning turn of pace, then Donald Trump is playing the long game. The current wisdom of polls and pundits is that if it’s possible for Trump to win in November at all, it’ll be a very close win. Trump has been working hard to get out ahead of the possibility of a disputed result by setting out his stall early; as long ago as April he tweeted that the use of mail-in ballots resulted in “[t]remendous potential for voter fraud,” and that Republicans should fight “very hard” against their distribution. Since then, the president has posted as many as forty-four tweets either implying or outright claiming that the use of mail-in ballots increases the risk of voter fraud.


A concurrent element of the same narrative is Trump’s attempt to establish a belief that if no clear result can be established on election night, then the result is somehow suspect; writing the story of an election stolen before it’s even taken place. This is a disinformation campaign, pure and simple. Various studies have found that the threat of voter fraud is almost non-existent. Constitutional Law Professor Elizabeth Joh explains: “There were 491 prosecutions for absentee ballot fraud between [2000 and 2012]. That seems like a lot, […] but this is a time period in which there were literally billions of votes cast. So as a percentage, it’s a miniscule amount of fraud. It’s not enough for anyone to worry about the voting system at all.”


All this is to say that there is basically no prospect of voter fraud having any impact on the election result whatsoever. What might have an impact, however, is Trump’s campaign to convince voters that it will. The Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard published a report on October 2nd, reviewing the potential that the voter fraud disinformation campaign has to impact November’s election. The report’s authors warn that the perception of voter fraud as a risk “will have a dramatic effect on participation rates and the legitimacy that tens of millions of Americans will attach to the outcome of the election.” What’s more, they conclude that Trump’s attempt to seed this disinformation has been aided by the mainstream media, which they feel has failed to adequately police the perception of its accuracy.


Trump, according to the report’s authors, has “perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign.” Media outlets’ failure to stem the tide of the voter fraud narrative is the result of three tendencies well established in journalism: “elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.” The group is scathing about the potential of traditional methods in dispelling this particular brand of fake news, insisting that: “the primary cure for the elite-drive, mass media communicated information disorder is unlikely to be more fact checking on Facebook.” Instead, they say, journalists need to be more ready to call a spade a spade; that is to recognise the voter fraud narrative as a disinformation campaign, and call it out as such.


It’s clear that Trump is laying the groundwork here to refuse to accept a close result. When asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power, he has defied precedent, saying only that: “We’re going to have to see what happens.” By following George W Bush’s playbook of writing the story of his own election, Trump threatens to plunge the U.S. into a major constitutional crisis the like of which we’ve not seen since Reconstruction. Perhaps the saving grace is that unlike the Bush team’s 2am pivot into a victory lap, Trump’s has been building and pushing his narrative out in the open for months, even years, so recognising and rejecting it ought to be easier. But then again, often the biggest disasters are the ones we see coming.

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