The acrimony on the presidential campaign trail has reached new lows in distortions, misinformation and irresponsible racially and religiously coded attacks by pundits, campaign staffers, surrogates and the candidates themselves.
That divisiveness has spilled over into campaign rallies over the last several weeks, provoking long-simmering class, gender and racial tensions expressed as everything from full-throated criticisms and angry outbursts to subtle pretext questioning the nominees’ patriotism, mental stability and public demands for candidates’ medical records.
The latest antic occurred Monday evening when a deer head — with its antlers severed in an apparent attempt to make the carcass resemble a donkey — was dumped in the parking lot of the Obama-Biden campaign’s Colorado Springs office, according to a local police official.
Are those ugly eruptions simply an aberration caused by a few unhinged supporters or a reflection of an unspoken subculture Americans would rather not confront?
Christa Rogers, a marketing professional from Denver who attended Barack Obama’s campaign rally Sunday at Civic Center Park, says the widely reported campaign audience misconduct could be the sordid echo of long-held prejudicial fears.
“All you have to do is look at the two different parties’ crowds,” says Rogers. “Obama’s crowd is a diverse crowd. McCain’s crowd, OK, I don’t have to say. All you have to do is look at it.”
But she’s circumspect about the situation McCain finds himself in.
“I think if they had to do it over again they wouldn’t have handled their campaign as nastily as they have,” Rogers reflects. “[T]hat might have worked 35 years ago, but I think we’ve grown, people have moved ahead. You can look at the world and see how it’s becoming more diverse. To try to say that people are unAmerican — it just speaks for itself.”
Rogers concerns are evident in recent media criticisms — by pundits representing the political left and the right — that McCain needs to personally disavow the provocative conduct of his supporters and reign them in.
The most egregious examples from the McCain camp range from campaign co-chair ex-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating using racially loaded terms to describe Obama; Rep. Michele Bachmann calling for McCarthy-esque investigations of Obama, his wife, Michelle, and other members of Congress for alleged anti-American beliefs; to yahoos across the nation whipped into a frenzy shouting “nigger,” “terrorist” and “kill him” at recent rallies headlined by GOP vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Though less obvious in their tactics, Obama and his surrogates have steathily insinuated doubts about McCain’s age and mental health by invoking the terms “erratic,” “reckless” and “risky” when describing their opponent.
For weeks, liberal groups have also called on the Arizona senator to release his medical records for broader inspection, raising the specter of his impending demise after treatment for at least four known bouts of melanoma. However, they admittedly have made no formal request to the campaign to obtain the files and deny the apparent hypocrisy of medical-prognosis-from-afar for which former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon, was roundly criticized during the right-wing hype surrounding the Terry Schaivo right-to-die controversy in 2005.
Whether or not it’s a function of Colorado’s nascent role as a true battleground state with an electorate bemused by the lavish campaign attention, the ugliness and recriminations have not yet stained local rallies. Of the 10 campaign events headlined by Palin, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, McCain and Obama in the state over the last week, none had reports of violent rhetoric.
Aside from the risk of falling victim to the respective partisan smear machines that are in full swing, some Coloradans do appear to be simply working off their party’s well-rehearsed ideological talking points to make their voting decisions — some apparently from the White House, circa 2004.
Outside a McCain-Palin campaign stop Oct. 24 at Denver’s National Western Arena registered Republican voter Travis Trimble acknowledged that while he was on hand for his first-ever political rally his support for the ticket was unwavering.
“The success of the war is very, very important to me,” says Trimble. “The idea of pulling the troops out now is, I think, the worst idea. I think that everybody has been so against the Bush administration, and I disagree with that.
“I think the Bush administration has done a much better job than what they’re given credit for. I think they’re on the right track. The surge has worked in the past months. I agree with everything that George Bush has done.”
McCain’s concerted effort to distance himself from President Bush, going so far to denounce the administration’s economic policies and war record, doesn’t phase Trimble, who describes himself as a long-time Republican voter.
Belinda Trush, a resident of Highlands Ranch, a suburb southeast of Denver, shared Trimble’s concerns. “National security is at the forefront for me,” says the telecommunications professional and 30-year straight-ticket GOP voter. Though Trush didn’t defend the president’s performance as she rushed into the McCain rally.
As convinced of the president’s self-assured path as Trimble is, Peggy Gunther, a nursing home business office manager from Lakewood, is as worried that a McCain presidency will, indeed, offer four more years of the Bush-Cheney White House.
“I believe McCain is a follower and he’s gonna be a follower through the presidency if he makes it,” she recounts. “I think [the Republicans] are more for the higher class, the rich, the oil people. It’s going to take away from all of us.”
Score another one for the party talking points.
Gunther stands near a driveway on Dahlia Street behind the Adams City High School fieldhouse snapping photos of Biden’s motorcade and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Democratic vice presidential nominee following his rousing Oct. 21 stump speech in Commerce City.
The Biden rally was Gunther’s first political engagement. The 40-something-year-old wife and mother said the economy is the issue driving her to vote for the very first time in her life.
“The economy is affecting my life tremendously,” said Gunther. “I have a child who’s graduating from high school this year. She won’t be able to go to college. I’m barely making my mortgage.”
Several rally participants at the Obama and Biden campaign stops mention the economy as their top concern. None of the McCain event attendees did.
Surprisingly, social wedge issues such as abortion, gay marriage and school prayer that appear to be motivating those disrupting other rallies don’t seem to have much resonance with Colorado voters of any stripe this election cycle. Moral legislation, one of the most potent political weapons of the last four decades, was popularized by McCain’s political mentor and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Today, the economy trumps all.
Matt Bersagel, senior pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Greeley, noted outside the Biden rally at the University of Northern Colorado that as a mainline Christian he supports Obama because of his commitment to social justice and the ethic of Jesus.
“I can imagine if people are looking at their faith and their politics through one singular issue and every now and then we run into that where people can hardly fathom holding, you know, convictions for either a candidate or a party or a political belief that they feel is tainted by one flaw in the campaign,” says Bersagel.
“By and large, I see the evangelical right often gets a little caught up in that to where things like abortion become such an absolutely dominant issue for them and so emotionally powerful they don’t know how to have all the other conversations about everyone else on the planet and all the other lost ones and lost souls.”
Bersagel draws an important distinction between mainstream faith communities and their single-issue conservative evangelical brethren.
“We’re all for broadening that conversation. That’s politics. Nobody has the whole package.”