LEWISTON — Watching the televised debate among candidates in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District on Monday, Bates College rhetoric professor Stephanie Kelley-Romano said she was most struck by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s effort to scare voters away from his chief opponent.
“Obviously, Poliquin was using incredibly incendiary language almost in order to invoke fear from viewers,” she said Tuesday.
She said his effort to tag Democratic challenger Jared Golden as “a young radical who embraces a socialist agenda” was obviously a bid “to get these words associated” with his opponent.
It’s a tactic, she said, that sometimes works. But it’s far from a sure thing.
Sometimes, it can backfire if the speaker comes off badly and the target of the attack handles it well, she said.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence that slamming a foe repeatedly with the same attack can be successful.
Kelley-Romano said Donald Trump uses repetition frequently to try to get an idea to permeate the public, sometimes as simple as “Crooked Hillary” or “fake news.”
“He’s all about repetition,” she said.
John Sadowsky, a former professor in Spain’s Grenoble École de Management, described Trump’s tendency to use the same words over and over as a way “to convince his audiences mostly by dint of repetition, rather than with rational argument and supporting evidence.”
He said the truth of what Trump is saying “becomes almost irrelevant” because the incessant repetition winds up leaving people with an image stamped in their minds that has little to do with logical argument or the truth.
What’s key, Kelley-Romano said, is how the message is received by the intended audience.
She said that watching the debate sponsored by News Center Maine, she thought Golden mostly handled it well.
“Jared did not seem upset for flustered,” she said. “If anything, he seemed bemused” by Poliquin’s reliance on some variation of the phrase at least half a dozen times in the hourlong forum debate.
Kelley-Romano said that in addition, Golden appeared more civil, appearing to listen while Poliquin talked, and rarely talking over him.
On the other hand, she said, Poliquin’s readiness to jump in might be seen by some as commendable enthusiasm and energy. Golden’s more passive approach could perhaps be read as “defensive or afraid,” Kelley-Romano said.
Whatever the impact, there’s no doubt Poliquin was trying “to associate Golden with negative things” when he repeatedly tagged the Lewiston Democrat as young, radical, extreme or socialist, she said.
By connecting him with “scary things,” she said, Poliquin attempted “to cast a negative pall over Golden.”
Golden denounced Poliquin’s assertions as “shameless” lies. He accused the GOP incumbent of engaging in “some sort of political game” rather than openly discussing his views and votes with voters in the sprawling, rural district.
It’s worth noting that the strategy has been a part of the Republican campaign since the day Golden entered the race in August 2017.
On the day Golden declared his candidacy in Kennedy Park in Lewiston, Poliquin consultant Brent Littlefield welcomed him to the contest by declaring that “young Jared Golden looks good on the surface, but diving deeper you find an extreme Augusta liberal politician outside of the mainstream.”
Because Poliquin and Golden spent so much time bashing one another on stage Monday, Kelley-Romano said, the two independents in the race wound up looking better.
Both Southwest Harbor educator Will Hoar and Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond were “able to articulate higher principles” and policies because they were weren’t the target of either of the front-runners, she said.
Students watching the debate actually cheered when Hoar spoke, Kelley-Romano said.
But both independents, who may prove the key to victory in a ranked-choice voting environment, could talk more about what they’re about and what they believe instead of trying to zing an opponent, she said.
Kelley-Romano had kind words as well for moderator Pat Callaghan, an anchor at the station, for doing “really good” in trying to coral the candidates to stay on topic and address the questions, something that’s never easy.
Taken as a whole, she called the debate “wicked interesting” and said she’s looking forward to the second debate in the race next Tuesday.