Overheated politics cooks up conspiracy theories

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 8, 2012 

— In case you missed it, we learned in just the past week that: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cooked the unemployment numbers, Mitt Romney cheated in the debate and the liberal media fixed President Barack Obama’s poll numbers a month before the election.

We already knew that Obama was born in Kenya; that former President George W. Bush actually lost the pivotal state of Ohio in 2004, despite winning re-election, and, of course, the big one:

9/11 was an inside job.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can.

“Well, you can tell we’re getting down to the last 30 days, can’t you,” said Kim Alfano, a Republican strategist.

Time and time again in American politics, conspiracy theories have gained followers faster than fake Twitter accounts. They rarely have an impact on the outcome of elections, Alfano and other experts say. But they especially flourish in an era of polarization and discontent, fueled by the echo chambers of the blogosphere and social media.

“This new communication revolution really magnifies the tendencies,” said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University and the author of books on political conspiracies.

And in the final stretch of what’s likely to be a very close election, partisan imaginations are running wild.

On Friday, no sooner had the government announced that the unemployment rate had dropped below 8 percent in September – the last time it was that low was January 2009, when the president took office – some of his critics took to Twitter and the airwaves in disbelief.

“Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change the numbers," tweeted no less a critic than Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric and a Romney supporter.

Welch, it should be noted, knows something about jobless numbers. He cut 100,000 jobs at GE in the 1980s, earning him the nickname “Neutron Jack.”

Both parties are guilty of not only stretching the truth, but of just making stuff up.

Stunned by Romney’s good debate performance – and the president’s own unexciting effort last week – some Obama backers said that he must have cheated.

Their evidence?

A slow-motion video shows Romney slipping a white object out of his pocket and placing it on the lectern before the debate began. Romney critics said it looked like a piece of paper.

The candidates are not allowed to have notes. They are, however, allowed to carry a handkerchief. Another video clip shows Romney picking up that object mid-debate and wiping his face with it.

Certainly, not all Republicans agreed with Welch, and not all Democrats believed that Romney had a cheat sheet. But passions can sometimes overtake diehard partisans.

Back in 2004, some Bush critics insisted that he cheated during one of his debates with Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, by wearing an earpiece. They never proved it.

After Bush won a close re-election battle, some Kerry supporters claimed that he couldn’t have won Ohio unless the voting machines had been tampered with. That was never proven, either.

As for the current campaign, experts said that it was unlikely that the Labor Department could have doctored the employment report, or that independent pollsters would have skewed their numbers to make the president look more popular.

“Three or four polls come out at the same time and say the same thing? That’s not cooked,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who’s worked on presidential campaigns.

Still, whether it’s polls or jobs or birth certificates, “Voters tend to believe things they already believe,” he said.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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