The Guardian’s Experiment

In case you’ve missed it, last week The Guardian started “Operation Clark County.” The idea was that they would facilitate letter-writing from British citizens concerned about the US election to undecided voters in a semi-rural county in central Ohio.

How has it gone? The Daily Telegraph (a right-of-center British newspaper) says not so well:

British intervention in poll backfires

Dan Harkins, a political activist in the vital swing state of Ohio, was excited when he first heard that the Guardian newspaper was recruiting readers to write to voters in his state in the hopes of giving foreigners a voice in the American election.

…The first letters to be made public all urged Clark County voters to reject Mr Bush. As he watched the reaction of friends and neighbours, Mr Harkins was delighted.

He is the chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, and his neighbours’ reaction was outrage. “It’s hysterical,” laughed Mr Harkins, showing off sheaves of incensed e-mails and notes from local voters.

The Republicans’ delight compares with the gloom among local Democrats, who fear that “foreign interference” is hurting Mr Kerry.

Did it ever occur to the Guardian that their idea might backfire? Apparently it did. This is what the Guardian wrote today about Operation Clark County:

It’s not as if we didn’t consider the possibility that our project might have precisely the opposite effect to that intended… It’s just that we didn’t believe it. For one thing, it seemed unlikely that our campaign would ever reach a scale that would have any real impact on the election, one way or another. For another, it seemed spectacularly patronising to suggest that the people of Clark County would be so volatile that they would vote one way simply because an individual several thousand miles away had suggested they do the opposite.

…We set out to get people talking and thinking about the impact of the US election on citizens of other countries, and that is what we have done. For the Guardian to have experienced such a backlash to an editorial project is extraordinary, but the number of complaints are thoroughly outdone by the number of people who engaged positively with the project. What other lessons can we draw from Operation Clark County? I guess we will have to wait till November 3 to find out for sure, but here’s a provisional stab: there are a huge number of people around the world who are profoundly dismayed by the prospect of another four years of a Bush White House and who are desperate for a way to do something about it; Guardian readers are a reassuringly engaged, resourceful and largely charming bunch; parts of America have become so isolationist that even the idea of individuals receiving letters from foreigners is enough to give politicians the collywobbles and, perhaps, in the digital age little acorns can turn into big trees very, very quickly.

It was all quite predictable, I suppose. If nothing else, it makes for extremely entertaining political theater.