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The Anatomy of the Dirty Trick

We don’t always see a dirty trick in our American Fork political campaigns, but we see them occasionally. There’s cause to suspect we’ll see at least one in this general election cycle, aimed at taking down at least one leading candidate. Before that happens (if it does), let’s talk about campaign dirty tricks in general.

We’ll look at what they are and aren’t, their typical attributes, and how we voters can respond intelligently and responsibly when they appear. I’ll give examples, local and otherwise. Some will be historical, some hypothetical, and I’ll be clear about which is which.

What Dirty Tricks Are and Aren’t

When I speak of dirty tricks in local politics, I mean something bigger than the routine exaggerations, distortions, and half-truths we get from some candidates, and something much bigger and badder than so-called “negative campaigning.”

Some people cry “negative campaigning!” when a candidate offers a conscientious critique of another candidate’s voting record. I don’t consider that negative, and it’s certainly not dirty. But even when the critiques are not conscientious, when they abuse the facts, they rarely rise to the “dirty trick” level in my view.

Here’s a possible exception. See what you think.

Several years ago, a national conservative organization sent out a 44-page booklet evaluating a longtime incumbent Republican’s voting record in the US Senate. It mentioned dozens of votes, and I dug into each one. About one-third of the accusations were outright falsehoods, and another third were intentionally deceptive. The senator’s votes were misreported in some cases. In other cases preliminary, procedural votes were used to suggest that he voted for bills he actually voted against and vice versa. The remaining third were accurately reported, in context, and could properly have been held against the senator.

By sheer volume and reach, I’d be tempted to call this booklet a dirty trick, because so much intentional falsehood was involved. However, the timing made it less of an ambush than the typical dirty trick. There was time to examine, explain, and refute.


Timing is key. The dirty trick should come early enough to affect enough votes but not so early that the target can rebut or explain effectively or that many voters might push past emotion and engage in sober reflection. Hence the well-known term “October surprise,” given that Election Day traditionally is in early November.

The advent of large-scale early voting made the timing more difficult. Dirty tricks which appear early enough for the earliest voters are more likely to be exposed before later voters vote. This is less important when media coverage of an election is minimal, as in many local elections, or when (as we have seen at the national level) the perpetrators have national corporate media and social media on their side, to spread the deception quickly and suppress and discredit any substantive response.

Historical example: A rejected dirty trick opportunity

Dirty tricks don’t always begin inside a candidate’s campaign.

In 1996 I managed a campaign for New York State Assembly, the lower house of the Empire State’s legislature. My candidate was the sacrificial Republican challenging a popular, three-term Democrat incumbent in a heavily Democratic district. We lost, but not by the margin you might expect.

A few weeks before Election Day, I had a call from someone who claimed to have, and wanted to deliver to me, photos of our opponent in a highly compromising situation with a woman other than his wife.

I told him we weren’t interested. I didn’t ask who was the woman, where the photos were taken, or what precisely was the compromising situation. To this day, if the photos actually existed, you couldn’t prove it by me.

(By the way, after the election, the local newspaper praised our campaigns — both sides — for being the only race on local voters’ ballots which focused on the issues, not personal attacks. That was true, except for a letter to the editor which accused my candidate of having a soft spot for pedophiles, an absurdity which got no traction at all.)

What if the photos were real, and what if they showed what this man claimed they showed? We could have released them to the press a week before Election Day, or even announced them in one of the debates. We could have arranged for a third party to break the story and release the photos.

It might have worked. We might have swayed some votes toward my candidate. We might have swayed some votes away from my candidate too.

The pictures could have shown the candidate giving the woman a big hug — and the woman could have been his sister or his cousin. But they still could have hurt him, as long as we got them out at just the right time, so a lot of voters saw them and heard our narrative, and there wasn’t enough time for the truth to get out before the election.

Deception, distortion, distraction

The dirty trick aims to discredit a candidate with voters, often through deception or distortion.

Sometimes it relies on distracting either the voters or the candidate. Attacking candidates’ families with falsehoods or even with truths can distract them, take them off their game, and even cause them to do or say something rash and self-defeating. Again, the goal is an emotional response, avoiding sober reflection.

Sometimes, perhaps in part to avoid libel or slander accusations, the dirty trick comes in the form of questions. I’ll give an example later.

if a story is true and gives an accurate picture of the target, and it comes out in time for the voters to consider all sides of the story, it’s not a dirty trick. But if such a story is timed as a dirty trick, so the rest of the story can’t get traction before the voters vote, it’s rather dirty, I think.

Historical example: George W. Bush and NBC

During the 2004 presidental campaign CBS News broke a story that President George W. Bush had lied about his service in the Texas Air National Guard. They posted documents on the Web to support the story. Unfortunately for CBS, within hours people who saw them were able to demonstrate that the documents were fakes.

Naturally, Bush’s opposition was reluctant to concede the deception. For example, The New York Times ran a story spinning the documents as “fake but accurate.”

It’s tricky, if you’ll pardon the pun. Sometimes the truth gets out in hours, not days or weeks.

Historical example: John McCain and the fake poll question

In the 2000 Republican presidential primary, in which eventual nominee George W. Bush ran against Senator (and eventual 2008 nominee) John McCain, opponents of McCain called Republican voters in that state with a phony poll. One of the questions asked, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain . . . if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

As a Brookings Institution article on dirty tricks explained, “McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted a dark-skinned girl from Bangladesh in 1991 and that child, Bridget, was campaigning with them in South Carolina.”

So McCain was actually caught parenting an adopted child, which isn’t damning at all. But the trick still worked. “McCain was distraught at this attack and his efforts to fight back only made his situation worse. He lost the South Carolina primary and the nomination.”

It stands on its own, fits a larger narrative, and relies on anonymity

As a practical matter, a dirty trick must stand on its own in a sense. It can’t require a lot of explanation, because the voters who won’t pause for sober reflection are the very voters you’re trying to reach with a dirty trick. Ideally, you’ll also pull in naive voters who reason that it’s such a big thing that people wouldn’t lie about it, so at least some part of it must be true,

Since we’re evading careful thought anyway, the dirty trick doesn’t have to be plausible on sober reflection, especially if a race is close.

Ideally, a dirty trick fits a larger narrative. A dirty trick that portrays the target as an out-of-touch rich man is more effective if that’s part of the opposition’s larger narrative.

And often the dirty trick’s scandalous news is either publicized anonymously or attributed to an anonymous source.

Historical example: Harry Reid and Mitt Romney’s Taxes

One of the classic recent dirty tricks in our national politics began in July 2012, about three and a half months before that year’s presidential election. President Barack Obama was running for a second term, and former Massachusetts Governor (now Utah’s junior US Senator) Mitt Romney was challenging him from the Republican side.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, announced that a source had told him that Romney hadn’t paid any federal income taxes in the last ten years. He didn’t say whether that meant Romney had found legal ways to reduce his tax liability to zero or had illegally evaded taxes, but he didn’t have to.

Reid repeated the charge over and over again in the months before the election, including at least once in an official proceeding on the Senate floor. The charge was absurd on its face and was eventually disproven, but in a sense it didn’t matter. It got enough traction to affect the election.

The source was later reported to be Utah billionaire Jon Hunstman, Sr., the father of erstwhile presidential candidate and Romney rival Jon Huntsman, Jr.

After the election, a CNN reporter asked Reid if he regretted the lie he told about Romney. He said he had no regrets. Five words of his answer are etched in our political memory: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Let’s test Reid’s dirty trick against our rubric.

  • It was false.
  • It was early but relied on a compliant media apparatus to achieve its intended effect before the truth came out.
  • It was simple, made the target look bad, and stood on its own without explanation.
  • It fit into a larger narrative, that Romney was an uber-rich guy who was out of touch with ordinary Americans.
  • It was attributed to a source who remained anonymous at first.

My examples so far have been mostly at the national level. Let’s go local, shall we?

Dirty Tricks in American Fork

As I said, we don’t see a dirty trick in every local election, but we’ve seen some over the years.

Local historical example: Taking out the former police chief

In the 2005 general election in American Fork, one of the candidates was former Police Chief Terry Fox. Five days before Election Day — back when that was a clearer concept — Provo’s Daily Herald included a special election guide section. In it was a full-page ad attacking Chief Fox.

In the ad one Jerry Harris, a retired police officer, asked seven questions in very large print. These included, “Did Mayor Barratt allow you to resign to avoid the embarrassment of being fired as Chief of Police? If so, what were the true circumstances of your resignation?” The insinuations baked into the questions went downhill from there.

As I wrote at the time,

Fox must have known the attack was coming. . . . His own quarter-page ad is mostly a measured and dignified response to the attack. It is not a fully adequate response; fending off foolish and malicious charges tends to require far more words than the charges themselves employ.

Two days later I had new information:

My sources say that there is a Jerry Harris, but he does not live in American Fork and may not be the one responsible for the ad’s appearance. As a voter, if I cannot evaluate the real source of the questions (charges, really) and the credibility of that source, I have to reject them as unproven and irrelevant to my vote.

Let’s see how this dirty trick fits my description.

The timing was classic. Even if Fox knew it was coming and responded to a degree in his own ad, it came too late for him to answer the insinuations effectively.

It took a fact, Fox’s retirement, and spun it into a narrative which reflected poorly on his professional character.

It wasn’t perfectly simple, but it only took seven questions in large print.

It wasn’t technically anonymous, though the name signed may not have been the real name of the person behind the ad. The Daily Herald soon reported that a sitting city councilor had paid for the ad.

Fox lost the election.

If You See a Dirty Trick

If you see a possible dirty trick in this year’s campaign or any other, there are things you can do.

Slow down

Don’t react with emotion. Allow time for sober reflection.

Resist the temptation to spread the story, by word or by click.

Be patient. If there isn’t time for patience and sober reflection before you have to vote, refuse to let the October surprise affect your vote. People use October surprises because they sometimes work. Whether this one works or not depends partly on you.

Be skeptical

Ask yourself: Who benefits if this is true? Who might have invented it or distorted it, if it’s false? Do the target’s opponents already have a history of playing fast and loose with the truth?

If it’s anonymous or based on anonymous sources, even more skepticism is warranted.

Ask yourself: If this is legitimate, why wasn’t it raised earlier in the campaign, to allow time for voters to hear and consider both sides?

Ask yourself: Does this matter? If the story is true, does it substantively affect the target’s fitness for office?

Ask yourself: If the facts are true, how might they have been spun to distort reality? What other narratives might the same facts support?

Ask yourself: have I heard both sides of the story?

Local, hypothetical example: If this writer were running

If I were running for office, perhaps my opponents or their supporters would dig into my past and emerge with these two damning reports, both of which could go public just as ballots arrive in the mail.

  • Some years ago, when I served as an LDS bishop (the lay pastor of a local congregation), I got a woman in my congregation pregnant. She had the baby, a boy, and I support both her and him to this day.
  • More recently, I was questioned by the Utah Highway Patrol in connection with a DUI episode on I-15.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you were planning to vote for me. You just changed your mind, didn’t you? Or do you suspect a dirty trick?

The timing is right for a dirty trick. The accusations are appropriate for a dirty trick. You might even detect the ring of truth. That’s the gold standard in dirty tricks.

What would you do?

Here’s the thing. Both those statements are true. But that woman in my congregation was and is my wife. And I was the one who reported and helped UHP locate the impaired driver in rush hour traffic on I-15. I wasn’t the driver. As a responsible voter, you’d probably want to know these things.

Some of the best lies are partly or even mostly true. Don’t believe everything you hear, read, or see, especially in an election — even if you want it to be true. Be patient, think soberly, and try to discover the whole truth.

Local example that could have been an electoral dirty trick but apparently wasn’t (but we’ll look at it hypothetically, as if it were): The angry mom in the video

Shortly before this year’s primary election in American Fork, a cell phone video went viral in the cesspool formerly known as Twitter and elsewhere. It purported to show a masked woman at a local big box store, yelling at an unmasked man for not wearing a mask. The posts identified the woman as a candidate for American Fork City Council and suggested, to put it mildly, that we ought not vote for her.

If you, as an American Fork voter, saw those posts and watched that video, were you suspicious? Did you let it affect your vote?

In local races we can often do something we can’t do in larger races, when we see something that might be a dirty trick. We can contact the target and hear the other side of the story.

If you did that in this case, you were probably glad you did. You might have heard that the woman and her husband and young child were masked because the child’s immune system is compromised. You might have heard that the child had been in the hospital the previous day. You might have heard that the child was often masked in public at a doctor’s suggestion even before the COVID pandemic. You might have heard that the unmasked stranger accosted the parents for being masked and for masking their child, and attempted to pull the mask from the child’s face.

You’d want to know all that, wouldn’t you? Especially that last part? Before you let the deceptively edited viral video affect your vote? Because that makes it an entirely different story. Given those facts, as a parent I might endorse those parents breaking the man’s arms in the struggle, and in any case detaining him until the police arrived, so they could charge him with assaulting and endangering their child.

The AFPD investigated criminal threats made against this mom and her family after the video fragment went viral. By her own account, they determined that the nastiness was probably unrelated to her city council campaign. I’m not suggesting otherwise.

Hypothetically, though, what if it were a dirty trick aimed at the city council election? Who could benefit?

What if someone thought that taking out this candidate would increase another candidate’s chances of finishing in the top six (for three seats) and thereby advancing to the general election?

Granted, this would be a bit over the top for a minor candidate hoping to finish sixth in a small-city election for a job that isn’t lucrative or very much fun. But humans sometimes get carried away, especially as an election approaches.

If it had been a campaign-related dirty trick — again, I”m not saying it was — I can imagine the late Harry Reid intoning, after this candidate lost in the primary, and when the truth came out and someone asked if the liar had any regrets, “She didn’t win, did she?”

Last Thought

If you see something, suspect something. It might not be a political dirty trick. But it might be.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Official US Senate photo of Sen. Harry Reid (2009), a grand master of the dirty trick.


  1. Lisa Whitehead

    Who is the author of these blog posts? This one is excellent.

    • David Rodeback

      The author’s name is displayed just under the title. Usually, as in this case, it’s David Rodeback. Thanks for the kind words! — DR