If the 2000 election was remembered for “pregnant” chads and 2004 for the Swift Boaters, 2008 may have its own remembrance: Internet rumors.
Already, rumors – claims oftentimes without any basis in fact — have become a major force in the Republican and Democratic primaries.
One reason rumors are taking on such remarkable credibility can be explained by the new power of the Internet and its ability to quickly and widely disseminate often-scurrilous gossip.
For example, the Internet has in recent days been abuzz with talk that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was about to become the victim of a personal attack involving allegations about her private life – a story that made headlines in the respected Times of London.
Fearful of the growing power of rumors, the Clinton campaign has already set up a virtual “rapid response team” to deal with such tales.
A recent case in point was a column by columnist Bob Novak in which the veteran reporter alleged that a ranking Democrat had told him Clinton had serious dirt on rival Democratic Sen. Barack Obama but was sitting on it rather than using it to injure his campaign.
According to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, a Clinton spokesman was tipped off by a friendly reporter that Novak's column to be published the next day would report the explosive charge.
The next day, when Obama issued a statement on what Kurtz called “the thinly sourced item,” the Clinton team was ready with a heated response.
Said Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson in an e-mail to reporters: "Once again Senator Obama is echoing Republican talking points, this time from Bob Novak."
While every presidential campaign finds itself dealing with allegations, exaggerations, and rumors that require a quick response, Kurtz notes that his fellow journalists say that Clinton campaign officials are the fastest and fiercest at pushing back against media accounts that they regard as unfair or inaccurate.
"We live in a minute-to-minute media culture," according to Wolfson. “What may seem like a small story one day could snowball into a larger story the next day. Left unchecked, false stories can take on a life of their own."
The Post also cited the Clinton campaign’s quick response to a claim that “nobody got left a tip” when Hillary ate a sandwich at a lunch counter in Toledo, Iowa.
The Web “rumor” was even picked up by National Public Radio.
The Clinton campaign hastily fired off an e-mail to the network: "The campaign spent $157 and left a $100 tip at the Maid-Rite Restaurant. Wish you had checked in with us beforehand."
Moreover, as the Republican National Committee began e-mailing the NPR report to the press, Clinton's staffers had their denials released to blogs at the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media outlets.
Clinton is not the only presidential candidate who has been the target of rumor-mongering.
An online mass mailing warned of the “dark secrets” of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Romney’s Mormonism has already been used for negative “push polling” in New Hampshire.
Clinton is also not the only candidate to fire back at rumors circulating through the media.
Obama’s campaign has had to deal with a wave of false Internet claims. A widely circulating claims that Obama is secretly a Muslim. In fact, he is a practicing Christian.
After a Web site posted a picture that suggested Obama had not put his hand on his heart during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Iowa, it set off a chain e-mail that may have reached millions.
The e-mail read: "He refused to not only put his hand on his heart during the pledge of allegiance, but refused to say the pledge ... how in the hell can a man like this expect to be our next Commander-in-Chief? "
Obama’s camp quickly shot back that a Time magazine photo of the event was taken during the singing of the national anthem and not the Pledge of Allegiance.
"My grandfather taught me how to say the Pledge of Allegiance when I was 2," an angry Obama responded to the phony claim. "During the Pledge of Allegiance you put your hand over your heart. During the national anthem you sing."
“Untrue rumors need to be beaten back," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told Kurtz.
The use of negative rumors in a White House campaign is nothing new. During the heated 2000 GOP presidential primary, Sen. John McCain’s presidential ambitions were “emasculated by operatives working for” George W. Bush, according to the Times of London.
Badly needing a primary win in South Carolina, the Bush campaign, according to the Times, supporters of Bush began circulating flyers in the state saying McCain had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman. In fact, McCain and his wife have an adopted girl from Bangladesh.
Anonymous phone callers also told South Carolina voters that McCain’s wife was a drug addict.
Bush and his former chief strategist Karl Rove have always denied any involvement.
Interestingly, the mastermind of the McCain rumor campaign in 2000, Warren Tompkins, has been hired this year by Romney. And an anonymous anti-Fred Thompson Web site, PhoneyFred.org, has been traced to Tompkins’ consulting company, although he maintains it was the work of an employee acting independently, the Times reports.
One thing appears certain: the Internet allows rumors to move with some credibility to millions in hours or days.
The million-dollar question is how just much the various campaigns are secretly directing bloggers and other third parties to use Internet mud to affect voters’ perceptions.
Curious is the fact that Obama has been tarred by rumors claiming he is a Muslim, while Romney has been hit for his Mormon faith.
Recent polling – easily accessible to the campaigns – shows that such claims are a sore point with voters.
Ad Adweek survey found that they were “very/somewhat uncomfortable” about voting for a Muslim, and 51 percent felt that way about a Mormon.
There is no question that image does affect voters’ views, especially when it comes to the character of a candidate — and character counts.
For example, the Adweek poll also found that 47 percent of respondents “agree strongly/somewhat” that a presidential candidate’s marriage record says a lot about his or her character, and only 20 percent “disagree strongly/somewhat.”
Among Republicans, 66 percent agree.
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