Imagine being an undecided voter in Clark County, Ohio, last month. You kind of think John Kerry has some good points about the war in Iraq and the economy, but you feel more comfortable with George Bush’s faith and his resolve. One day, you open your mailbox to find a letter from someone in England you’ve never met. It starts like this:
Don’t be so ashamed of your president: the majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent. Please don’t let it come to that. Vote against Bin Laden’s dream candidate. Vote to send Bush packing.
It’s signed Richard Dawkins, a professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. And you’re thinking, ashamed of Bush? Canadian accent? Who is this pretentious Brit and why is he writing to me?
Of course this letter (as every Clark County resident undoubtedly knows) was part of one of the election’s biggest backfires: the British Guardian’s now-notorious “Operation Clark County.” The idea was simple: Give U.K. readers frustrated with the Bush administration a way to help drive him from office. The left-wing newspapertargeted one swing county in one swing state and invited readers to send one-on-one letters to independent American voters.
The response was huge and immediate. More than 11,000 Guardian readers across Britain and, soon, around the world signed up for the project. Spy novelist John Le Carré, for example, drafted this beaut and mailed it to some unnamed Clark County resident:
Probably no American president in all history has been so universally hated abroad as George W Bush: for his bullying unilateralism, his dismissal of international treaties, his reckless indifference to the aspirations of other nations and cultures, his contempt for institutions of world government …
But almost as soon as Operation Clark County was announced, right-leaning media and bloggers counterattacked. They masqueraded as interested lefties and got the paper to hand over some of the voters’ addresses (The Guardian was only giving out each address once, so as not to overwhelm the good citizens of Clark County). A hacker managed to shut down the paper’s Internet sign-up page.
And even as the pro-Kerry notes were still being written, Americans who had heard about the project (most of them not from Clark County) fired letters back at the Guardian.A few were appreciative. Many more were vicious. The paper printed some of them under the headline “Dear Limey assholes“:
Have you not noticed that Americans don’t give two shits what Europeans think of us? Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to NOT vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies. … I don’t give a rat’s ass if our election is going to have an effect on your worthless little life. I really don’t. …
There were numerous variations on the bad-teeth theme. Other letters verged on the threatening:
Consider this: stay out of American electoral politics. Unless you would like a company of US Navy Seals—Republican to a man—to descend upon the offices of the Guardian, bag the lot of you, and transport you to Guantanamo Bay, where you can share quarters with some lonely Taliban shepherd boys.
One said simply: “Please be advised that I have forwarded this to the CIA and FBI.”
Even the director of Clark County’s board of elections got into the debate. She was widely quoted as saying: “The American Revolution was fought for a reason.”
The Guardian editor responsible for the project, Ian Katz, finally wrote a piece on Oct. 21 crying uncle. He noted, among other things, that the paper had decided not to send the winners of the letter-writing contest to Clark County during election week, because it “would be bound to prolong the media brouhaha.” (The Guardian did not exactly endear itself to Americans after it canceled Operation Clark County, either. Click here for its other deft election stunt.
Katz also said he knew all along that the letter-writing project could backfire. So, did it? Almost certainly, yes. In 2000, Al Gore won Clark County by 324 votes. And since Ralph Nader received 1,347 votes, we can assume Gore’s margin would have been larger without Nader on the ballot. On Tuesday George Bush won Clark County by 1,620 votes.
The most significant stat here is how Clark County compares to the other 15 Ohio counties won by Gore in 2000. Kerry won every Gore county in Ohio except Clark. He even increased Gore’s winning margin in 12 of the 16. Nowhere among the Gore counties did more votes move from the blue to the red column than in Clark. The Guardian’s Katz was quoted as saying it would be “self-aggrandizing” to claim Operation Clark County affected the election. Don’t be so modest, Ian.