It's mud-throwing weekend for political campaigns

Rick Brand

Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on Rick Brand

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about

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Call it the "kitchen sink" weekend.

With time running out and desperation mounting, political campaigns - especially those behind or seeing their lead slipping away - throw the kitchen sink at their opponents.

Photos of foes in last-minute mailings tend to be ghoulishly distorted in time for Halloween. Phone calls, known as push polls, purport to be voter surveys but couch questions in ways that raise unfavorable information about opponents in an effort to skew voters' views.

Anonymous mailings or fliers on windshields circulate attacks. And the latest weapon in the dirty-trick arsenal? Internet attacks from unidentified or misidentified writers.

"Campaigns are trying to tap voters' anger," said Suffolk County Comptroller Joseph Sawicki, who over the years has seen his own share of last-minute attacks. When Sawicki first ran for the state Assembly, his foes falsely said he favored "industry on Robins Island," a pristine teardrop isle in Peconic Bay. He won anyway.

Campaigns often try to leak rivals' personal information to the press. Several years ago, one campaign tried to provide this newspaper with a police report about a candidate who had tried to get into his own house during a divorce. An editor at this paper demurred, saying, "What do you want us to do - a story on attempted fidelity?"

While some say the shrill tenor of this campaign season couldn't get any worse, others expect some campaigns will try.

"Desperate candidates do desperate things," said John Zaher, a GOP political consultant, "and there are few more essential emotions than self-preservation, especially for an incumbent."

However, Zaher said he's not sure last-ditch efforts will have much impact. "People have already gotten so much negative mail they are just tossing it in the garbage. I think most people have made up their minds."

Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who mainly works for Republicans, said, "When I first broke into the business you never went negative until the end because if you did it earlier, you were admitting you were behind - or desperate."

Now, he added: "The rule seems to be you want to identify your opponent before they can identify themselves. It's overwhelmingly negative from the get-go."

Some experts say last-minute attacks are not aimed at persuading undecided voters, but revving up supporters to keep them energized so they turn out to the polls.

Similarly, they say social media, such as blogs, are aimed at true believers rather than converts because users must link into sites.

However, former Democratic Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin said no one should underestimate the power of negative advertising.

"I hate to say it, but hate is the biggest motivator," he said. "People may say they like you, but then forget to vote. But if they hate you, you know darn well they are going to come out and cast their vote."