Long a staple of political campaigns, “dog whistles,” or trigger words or phrases, are meant to quickly convey a message or inflame voters.
This year’s race for New Jersey governor features a new vocabulary: “extreme/extremist,” “Trump,” “sodomy,” “Wall Street,” “critical race theory.”
“Candidates and campaigns know exactly what they’re doing when they use emotionally charged words,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “They’re trying to tap into reservoirs of shortcuts and gut reactions, to let people know you’re in on it, that you share the same concerns they do.”
For Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, one of his most-used verbal shortcuts is the word “Trump.”
By invoking the name of the former president, Murphy is attempting to tie Republican Jack Ciattarelli to an unpopular president who lost the state by 16 percentage points. Murphy’s most recent campaign ad uses Trump’s voice as he says children “are almost immune” to COVID-19 and then Ciattarelli, who says, “Children are not vulnerable to this virus.” The word “extreme” appears on the screen and the narrator states, “extreme politics ahead of science.”
While children tend to have a more minor reaction to the coronavirus than adults, about 1,600 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and nine have died in New Jersey.
In a statement following the first gubernatorial debate last week, Democratic State Committee Chair LeRoy Jones Jr. used “Trump-style extremism,” “Trumpism” and “extreme policy positions” in two of its three sentences.
During their first of two debates, Ciattarelli appeared prepared for the comparison to Trump: “If I may, if those watching at home are playing that drinking game where you’ve gotta take a shot every time you hear Trump, I suggest they stop real soon because, they’re gonna be bombed real soon.”
Final governor’s debate
Ciattarelli and Murphy are scheduled to meet at 8 p.m. Tuesday for their second and final debate, an event co-sponsored by NJ Spotlight News. It could be the last opportunity for each candidate, in a widely viewed setting, to convince undecided voters to back them and motivate their base. Code words will almost certainly play a part.
“‘Trump’ is the single most important word in this campaign,” said Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “Murphy is using it is a hammer to hit Ciattarelli with, because people in New Jersey despise Trump. But Trump is also apparently important for Jack, as well.”
Last month’s Monmouth University Poll on the race said that of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, more than nine in 10 of those who see Ciattarelli as being in line with Trump view that as a positive.
Ciattarelli has his own set of shortcuts familiar to audiences well-versed in conservative media.
In July, Ciattarelli was talking to a friendly group of supporters, denouncing New Jersey’s new inclusive LGBTQ curriculum for public schools.
“We’re not teaching gender ID and sexual orientation in kindergarten; we’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade,” Ciattarelli said, during the meeting, a video of which was later shared on social media.
None of that is happening in schools, said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality. Ciattarelli made those “offensive, uninformed comments” to “pander to far-right ideologues,” said Fuscarino, whose organization has endorsed Murphy for reelection.
Language that motivates party base
In another example of using campaign language to motivate the party base, Ciattarelli has talked several times about his opposition to teaching critical race theory, “particularly at the younger ages.”
A specific teaching approach used in law schools, critical race theory focuses on the idea that racism — whether conscious or subconscious — is embedded in laws and institutions. It has become a flashpoint for conservatives, who conflate it with teaching about racism and diversity. Parents and activists have packed school board meetings in some districts to protest teaching critical race theory despite no evidence that it is taught in K-12 schools.
“The critical race theory has elements to it that suggests that the white student, the white person, is the oppressor and the Black and brown is the oppressed,” Ciattarelli said during the first debate.
That’s not how it is described by those who teach critical race theory; they say it is about showing how bias in legal and other systems has disproportionately impacted people of color.
In the debate for lieutenant governor, Murphy’s running mate Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver accused Republican Diane Allen of speaking “in a very dog-whistle fashion” when Allen said she wants “to be sure that because you get a license, and you’re an immigrant, you don’t automatically get a vote, because right now that’s what happens when you get a license.”
“To believe that having an undocumented resident of this state be able to now vote sounds like much of the debate you hear on Capitol Hill, that there are some communities that shouldn’t have access to the vote,” Oliver said.
Allen denied that was her intention, saying, “I don’t know about a dog whistle, unclear about that. I think it’s a word that’s so overused and so inappropriately used so often. I’m simply saying what I believe, and it has nothing to do with any other communities. It simply has to do with an immigrant community that under our laws, doesn’t get the right to vote.”
When dog whistles work
Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the FDU Poll, said using dog whistles can be effective if people aren’t paying too much attention to the details.
“That struggle to hold on to your base while trying to win over moderates is what leads candidates to use dog whistles,” he said. “The research on this shows that they can work, but only so long as they’re not recognized or called out for their implications. The more people talk about what these terms really mean, the less they work: at this point, both sides are doing a pretty good job of calling out what they see as dog whistles from the other side.”
Pundits agree that political discourse is better served by a robust discussion of issues, rather than catch phrases or trigger words.
“It should be obvious why triggers are bad for public discourse. They just shut it down,” Rasmussen said. “There can be no further productive discussion once someone has reached a visceral, emotional conclusion, and that’s the point: to appeal to your base and no one else who doesn’t share the same reaction to the word.
“They do it because it works, but it definitely prevents further open discourse — which we need more, not less of.”