Things that win or lose elections

Bill Miles

With what might be the most active ‘mid-term’ election in Mississippi’s history coming in slightly over a month, this week’s column is devoted to observations about what could have played significant roles in past voter outcomes. Candidate mistakes impact the ballot box. One only has to think about the last national election. Hillary Clinton had at least one major blunder of her own making, in my opinion. That’s when she let her emotions override and she referred to supporters of her opponent as “deplorables”. That description gained her ‘nil’ among her base. They probably already shared that opinion. But on the other side, it lit a fuse that manifested itself on vehicle bumpers and social media. Well-meaning people proudly accepted the identification as a ‘deplorable’ and not only went to the polls but made sure their family connections did too. James Comey’s ‘quack’ reasoning to announce that the FBI was ‘re-opening’ the discredited email probe of Clinton also cost enough votes to change the outcome. It spooked lukewarm ‘Hillaryites’ into staying away. It got the opposite effect on the other side. Then Comey got his ‘comeuppance’ by thinking only he could save our democracy. Trump fired him. I give the former FBI director a minus 4 on a plus scale of 1 to 10. But things I’ve seen that I believe made a difference in an election go back to my earliest observation of Mississippi’s gubernatorial politics. As a teenager and unable to vote, J. P. Coleman’s 1955 campaign appealed to me as I identified with him as a hill country farm boy peddling water melons (or was it sweet potatoes) to go to Ole Miss. It didn’t hurt that he enlisted the famous gospel singing family, the Blackwoods, who he said were his cousins. They warmed up the crowd with melodies such as “This old house”. The Ackerman ‘plowboy’ overcame the underdog label to win and I even got my daddy to vote for him. A mutual friend of Plemon (Coleman) and me later told me when the candidate came out with the spiel at the Itawamba County Courthouse, he thought it was so corny it would cost votes. Nope! It got’em. Four years later I was old enough to vote and on the staff of another state university. Ross Barnett was considered trailing badly until he wandered into the whirling propeller on the plane flying him around to speaking’s. Erle Johnson of Forest, a newspaper man I looked up to, was Ole Ross’ PR man. In his book, Erle, related how exasperated he was when he got the phone call about the accident. Ross was seriously injured but more than anything else, his staff didn’t want it to appear their candidate was inept. Erle said, as he searched for a reason for the careless act, he called his brother-in-law, a crop dusting pilot. From him Erle learned that on rare instances a plane had been known to backfire. That might cause a prop to turn. But in Erle’s concoction, it was deemed an ordinary mishap. The voters bought it. Ross’ campaign picked up steam. In 1962 I admit I accidentally played a role in Paul B. Johnson, Jr.’s “Stand Tall with Paul” slogan. As a reporter/photographer covering the James Meredith enrollment at Ole Miss I made the picture his publicity folks altered to make it appear the ‘lite governor’ was ready to fight, James McShane, the big, tough former New York City cop JFK had made the chief U.S. Marshal. ‘Little Paul’ beat Coleman a year later. John Bell Williams voted for republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and fought the national democratic establishment, which stripped him of his seniority and power. In 1967 the one-armed Williams beat the cerebral William Winter, who based his effort on well thought out, documented plans for education, jobs, highways and services. Voters ignored the campaign literature and ‘rang the bell’ as one operative told me, “You ain’t never seen a black swan have you?” That was reference to the candidate, Jimmy Swan, an avowed racist who came in third in the first primary. Most of his support went to Williams. In 1971 Bill Waller said he’d kick out the “Capitol Street Gang” and voters believed him. An Ole Miss classmate that not many thought would prevail, Cliff Finch, lugged a black lunch box around the state in 1975 and convinced what has been referred to as the first combination of rural white and black voters to send him to ‘The Mansion’. I don’t know if my friend, Will Winter, could have won in 1979 had his race not matched him against Evelyn Gandy, the lady from Forrest County, the lieutenant governor. The other day a long-time elected official, who is not opposed this year, and I were talking about a mutual friend. His prediction is our friend has the “election to lose”. What he was saying was, “Don’t do anything stupid”. A lot of smart folks are dumb politicians. And vice versa.

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