Letters spurned in Ohio

Swing-state voters reject Brits' cajoling

October 21, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - If you think the insults have been flying fast, hard and low between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, read the political "discourse" sent from Americans to British citizens who dared contact them with opinions on the presidential election.

"Real Americans aren't interested in your [bleeping], tea-sipping opinions," read one note. "If you want to save the world, begin with your own worthless corner of it."

And then there was this: "We don't need [blankety-blank blanks] meddling in our presidential election. If it wasn't for America, you'd all be speaking German."

And this, all caps, should the sentiment not already seem strong enough: "I HAVE BEEN TO YOUR COUNTRY, THE COUNTRY OF MY ANCESTORS, AND I KNOW WHY THEY LEFT."

These were far from the most pointed notes from the Americans to their staunchest allies. Imagine if these protectors of America's sovereignty had been writing to the French.

The decidedly torrid notes came in response to what Britain's Guardian newspaper calls an experiment, an opportunity for its readers to voice an opinion on the coming presidential election.

The newspaper, a center-left daily with a circulation of about 400,000, bought a computer database list of voters in Clark County, Ohio, a swing area in a swing state, and then made arrangements to match individual readers with Americans on the voting rolls. The idea was that any reader who wanted to could write to any potential voter, one-on-one, to try to persuade him or her to vote for President Bush or Sen. John Kerry.

The result was somewhat predictable, even among Guardian editors, who assumed they'd feel the snap of some backlash.

"As much as anything, this was to give our readers, who will be affected by the outcome of the election, an opportunity to voice their opinions," said Paul MacInnes, assistant features editor for the newspaper. "We knew we'd get a response from the political right. What we didn't anticipate is the intensity of it.

"We can take it, but I'd rather not receive letters about our green teeth."

About 18,000 readers responded to the Guardian campaign, and though its original article explaining the effort was studiously neutral about which candidate to back, few of the newspaper's readers would be expected to urge a vote for Bush.

That, though, would be true of the vast majority of readers of most any newspaper almost anywhere in the world but the United States. While polls there show Kerry and Bush about even, people elsewhere in the world when asked their preferences for president overwhelmingly favor new blood in the White House.

In Britain, Kerry led Bush in a recent poll by 55 percent to 22 percent.

Guardian editors said they chose Clark County because its outcome may well reflect Ohio's outcome, which may in turn reflect the outcome of the election nationwide. In 2000, Al Gore defeated Bush in the county by 324 votes, though Bush won Ohio.

Clark County is on Interstate 70, not quite 25 miles from Columbus. Nearly 90 percent of its 143,000 residents are white and, like much of Ohio, it would be considered on the rural side, but is not without its city centers.

Its county seat, Springfield, is an antiques center but the biggest passion in the area tends to be Ohio State football. If the team's late, sanctified coach, Woody Hayes, could run for president, he might well shut out Bush and Kerry.

Many of the responses to the Britons who wrote came not from people in Clark County, MacInnes said, but from organized campaigns among computer bloggers and others to try to gain support for Bush by misrepresenting to others what the Guardian's effort was about.

One such site, FreeRepublic.com (which sells stickers that say, "From My Cold Dead Hands!" and "I Can't Wait to Vote for Dubya - Again!"), includes contributors who recommend that like-minded people contact people in Clark County, pretend to be British and then insult them while asking for Kerry's vote.

One contributor suggests: "Or one could write a really rude pro-Kerry letter. Let's see, ... I'd suggest writing, `vote for John Kerry because Bush is a Nazi, just like Woody Hayes was.'"

Another recommends Republicans write, on behalf of Kerry supporters: "I recognize that you are probably about to motor off, to go bowling or Bible-thumping or squirrel-hunting, or some other terribly violent and backward activity."

"You know, I don't think it's any of their ... business how we vote," James E. Sheehan, one of three Clark County commissioners, said by telephone yesterday. "I'm a Democrat, so you'd think I'd be in favor of any effort that would help Kerry, but I don't like this."

MacInnes, the Guardian editor, said the newspaper did not intend to run a campaign telling Clark County how to vote but to let people there know that Britons are affected by who occupies the White House. And he dismissed suggestions that the efforts could backfire so severely that the Guardian would be blamed for swaying Clark Countians to vote for President Bush.

"We don't think a letter from an individual in England is going to change the mind of someone in Clark County," he said. "We do hope they listen and consider, but in the end it's up to them."

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