“Where are you from? Russia?” the middle-aged woman asked matter-of-factly, as she walked toward her polling place in Seaside, California on Super Tuesday. She had been approached by a man wearing a Cossack Ushanka hat with a hammer and sickle pin, offering to buy her vote.
Neither she nor her daughter took the bribe, but they seemed intrigued, even charmed, by a guy meddling in our political process. After voting they returned with news that a friend was willing to switch to Donald Trump in the general election if the price were right.
This was an experiment for “Candid Camera.” My crew and I have been eavesdropping on the 2020 campaign, gathering material for a humorous documentary titled “Outvoted.”
I’ve been at this for too many years to be surprised by most of what folks do or say — but the degree of gullibility we observed in this test of Russian electioneering was stunning.
Actor Elijah Morgan claimed to be with the R.F.B.A. (Russians for a Better America). He offered cash to anyone willing to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and then switch their support to Trump in November.
One Sanders supporter expressed apparent enthusiasm for the first request, but quickly turned negative after hearing the second part. “That’s not going to happen,” she said about voting for Trump.
A male voter seemed to like the Trump deal, asking “How much do you want to buy (my vote) for?” He lost interest when informed that the payment was in rubles.
Another fellow in a tie-dyed shirt, who self-identified as a Trump-supporting “T Man,” examined the 10-ruble note and then happily accepted it to cement his support for the president.
Although our show’s library, compiled over seven decades by my father, Allen Funt and myself, is widely used in college psychology classes, we’ve never promoted our work as being scientific. Rather, the clips serve to provide real-life support for themes that experts are analyzing.
In this case, our experiment underscores the fact that Americans have been desensitized to flaws in the election process — from failed apps in Iowa all the way to evidence of Russian interference. Yes, Elijah was polite and friendly, but where was the outrage? I was expecting at least a few of the two dozen people he confronted to be what we call “finger-waggers.” We were looking for the type of citizen who would lecture us about how “You can’t do this in America!”
Instead, we had a college student who listened to the pitch and then exclaimed, “That’s so cool!”
A few weeks earlier in Reno, Nevada, I pretended to be from Canada and asked voters about the rules for caucusing. A few got parts right, but none was fully able to explain the process — especially “early caucusing,” in which Nevadans were required to list their top five choices for the presidential nomination.
Others were totally confused about the caucus day itself. “Pete had a caucus, Elizabeth Warren had a caucus, Joseph Biden had a caucus,” insisted one fellow. “So how many caucuses do you have?” I asked. Answer: “I don’t know.” A woman summed it up: “It’s America. They’re trying to confuse the hell out of us.”
As a purveyor of smiles, I’m pleased by some of this confusion; as a political observer, I’m dismayed.
Near Columbia University in Manhattan a few years ago, we gathered signatures on political “recall petitions.” The elected officials we sought to oust were fictitious, but that didn’t stop most people from signing. One man even signed a blank petition, trusting us to later insert the name of any politician we hoped to remove from office.
H. L. Mencken is credited with reminding us, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Personally, I’m still a believer in Americans’ collective wisdom. But the assault by social media, certain cable-TV hosts and the guy in the White House is testing that.
Asked to sell her vote by a man she thought was a Russian operative, one woman replied, “I like your hat.” The video may be found at: https://youtu.be/8zzwdl3B1C0