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The Fear Mongering Method of Lindsey Graham’s Campaign

Graham's latest donation drive coincides with the message he keeps delivering on national news: fear.
Graham's latest donation drive coincides with the message he keeps delivering on national news: fear.
Frank Plitt via Wikimedia

“An American city in flames!”

“Do you really want America to be attacked?”

“The next 9/11 is in the making!”

No, the above quotes aren’t from some horror flick or war movie promotion. They are the words of South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s been distributing these gruesome premonitions throughout this year’s election cycle, including in a recent August 11 mailing. But are these threats real, or are they just part of a fear factor Graham’s using to aid his re-election?

His campaign’s been in difficult situations, after all, such as its threats from multiple primary candidates. After squeaking through the June race with a 56-percent take, Graham now faces three opponents in November. A last-minute entry to the contest is another Republican, and who’s well-known in the state and (thanks to his on-going reality TV show) across the nation. And recent polls only grant Graham a slight plurality due to high disfavor reported by South Carolinians, and with many voters still undecided.

Add in that Graham pretty much stands alone on the topic, and that his only ally is John McCain (who, like Graham, has been censured by various Republican Party groups in his home state), and it seems that the incumbent is only trying to generate voter turnout and even campaign donations. And he’s using a cheap tactic known as “fear mongering” to achieve those goals.

For the past few months, Graham’s been playing a tarot-reading psychic, making apocalyptic premonitions on the current circumstance in Iraq. Back in June, for example, after leaving a committee hearing regarding the crisis, he told press on Capitol Hill that he knew of a terrorists’ plan to attack the U.S.; “what I heard today scared the hell out of me,” he added for emphasis. A few days later, he told CNN the circumstance in Syria and Iraq will become “the next 9/11 if we don’t do something about it.”

He went much more in-depth in evil premonitions in an Aug. 10 appearance on Fox News Sunday. Speaking about the current crisis in Iraq, Graham told host Chris Wallace:

“I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists’ ability to operate in Syria and Iraq. Mr. President, you have never once spoke directly to the America people about the threat we face from being attacked from Syria, now Iraq. What is your strategy to stop these people from attacking the homeland? […] I’m saying that Iraq and Syria combined represent a direct threat to our homeland. His responsibility as president is to defend this nation. If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL — whatever you want to call these guys — they are coming here! It is about our homeland, and if we get attacked because he has no strategy to protect us then he will have committed a blunder for the ages. […] Do you really want to let America be attacked?”

But does Graham really believe such threat exists, or is he only using this fear factor to drum up votes in this year’s election? Based on his campaign’s activities, the latter seems to be apparent.

On August 11, just one day after that Fox News Sunday appearance, many voters in his state of South Carolina received promotional mail that made the same threatening statements in a request for campaign donations:

“(My) agenda includes … Fight Radical Islamic terrorists who want to kill us(.) […] But in order for me to continue to speak up, I must win my re-election(.) That’s why I urge you to return your Pledge of Support as soon as possible (with) a generous contribution of $10, $15, $20 or whatever you can send(.)”

In the field of advertising, this tactic is referred to as “fear mongering” – “the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue,” according to Oxford Dictionaries. And while not common in political ads, fear mongering is still used in this field. Consider the well-known “Daisy” ads run by LBJ’s 1964 campaign, or the “Willie Horton” spots used by George H. W. Bush’s 1988 bid against Michael Dukakis.

According to Jessica A. Zaluzec’s master’s thesis on the topic, successful political advertisements must be intense, of familiar topic, memorable, and of emotional impact upon the viewer. Political campaigns practice this tenet that's traditional to the trade in the format of fear mongering. Zaluzec concludes:

“Fear advertisements are dramatically more effective at persuading viewers with more than one in four voting for the sponsor even though they initially were indifferent or learned toward to the opponent.”

It doesn’t always work, though, and can even have the opposite effect. Consider, for example, the NRA’s recent video promotion for (of all things) handguns for the blind. In the promo, spokesperson Dom Raso says:

“Do you think you need to see where you’re shooting if someone’s on top of you trying to kill or rape you, while their hands are slowly squeezing your neck, yelling ‘I’m going to kill you’? I didn’t think so.”

This fear-mongering video quickly caught public outrage, though, leading the NRA to quickly pull it offline. (The opposing Moms Demand Action group saved the video, though, and still has it available online in sharp critique of the NRA.)

And Graham’s consistent “next 9/11!” spiel could have the same negative effect, too. He’s made no improvement in support, for example. Recent polls say that an overwhelming majority of the population – both Democrat and Republican – oppose sending troops to Iraq, and despite Graham’s consistent promotion of another war.

Even his opponents are unconcerned with this fear mongering method. Says Lachlan McIntosh, campaign advisor to Graham’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Brad Hutto:

"Graham is trying to scare people into voting for him. It will take more than that to salvage his re-election chances. He's spent 20 years in Washington worrying about everything other than South Carolina. He doesn't know this, but here in South Carolina our infrastructure needs rebuilding, our schools need improving, and our economy needs jobs. He's obsessed with foreign policy and it’s hurting the people back home."

McIntosh is very correct, too. South Carolina’s been strapped for school funding since 2006, and recently hit a new high in Medicaid enrollment even though the state rejected Medicaid Expansion. Its people are high in poverty, and low in opportunity for work that can raise them above it. Yet so far this year Graham’s introduced just nine bills, all but two of which are related to conflicts in the Middle East. Of the remaining two, one promotes misdirection of school funds, further hindering education; the last pertains to online gambling, which Graham introduced in apparent exchange for donations from the gaming industry.

So what, exactly, is more likely to generate fear amongst voters? Graham’s ominous predictions of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil – or more of his constituent-ignoring representation in Congress?