On Rich Iott, Nazi Uniforms, and Imploding Campaigns

Pictured: Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

I have been watching with some amazement the news reports related to the revelation that congressional candidate Rich Iott has participated in historical re-enactments as a Nazi soldier. For at least four years Iott was a member of the Wiking Historical Re-enactment Society, which is dedicated to the study and re-enactment of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.

Let me begin by saying that as a historian I see significant pedagogical value in historical re-enactment, and that participants can learn a great deal about the periods and peoples they are covering. And no: I do not believe Rich Iott has any Nazi sympathies. Moreover, as a voter I had yet to decide (until this debacle, at least) whether I would vote for Marcy Kaptur (thus preserving the Toledo area's influence in the powerful House Appropriations Committee) or Rich Iott (who at least talks about a return to fiscal responsibility).

That being said, there are few controversies that Kaptur operatives could dream up that would be as effective as the gift that Rich Iott provided them with these Nazi uniform photos. I can just imagine Kaptur campaign aides sitting around the table when word of the photos emerged:

"Let me get this straight: we have photos of Rich Iott in Nazi regalia? Not Photoshopped, right? Hmmm...... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And so on.

Here is how this will probably play out: Iott will spend an entire week just before the election backpedaling and denying he is a Nazi. Kaptuir will take the high road, saying something like: "I have no reason to think Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer, and it is perfectly acceptable for historical re-enactors to wear period clothing, like Rich Iott and his son when they wore Waffen-SS uniforms for several years." She probably will not even put a loaded qualifier in there, like "Rich Iott needs to come clean to the voters about his views on the Nazis," because the photos are enough of a bombshell.

But the coverage from newspapers, television programs, radio talk shows, and Internet blogs and message boards will inevitably cement the terms "Rich Iott" and "Nazi" in the minds of voters. Military veterans and adherents of the various forms of Judaism will be the groups most likely to turn away from Iott, of course, but the word "Nazi" does not play well with very many voters. Just turning away a few thousand voters offended by pictures of Iott in a Nazi uniform is highly significant in an off-year election in which the total vote will probably be 220,000 or so.

What is going to hurt Iott more from this is the slowing of the money spigot in the remaining weeks. The last-minute cash that would normally be thrown at what seemed to be a fairly close race is going to drop off to a trickle, as no one likes to toss money into what is perceived to be a doomed campaign. Let's face it: for the next 3-7 days there will be thousands of news stories and blog posts with images of Rich Iott in a Nazi uniform, and only the most true-believing of Iott supporters are going to cough up cash as this story continues to circulate.

Prior to the Nazi photos I saw this race as something like a 53-47 Kaptur lead, but after the next week those numbers are going to move decidedly in Kaptur's favor, and I suspect Kaptur will wind up in the high fifties after Nazi-gate. Unless the Iott campaign has its own nuclear option, like a picture of Kaptur in a BDSM outfit or one of Kaptur tossing puppies off a bridge, Rich Iott is doomed. And the PMA scandal seems to have zero traction in this race, so Iott is wasting his time trying to beat this dead horse to pull the campaign plow.

Things look pretty grim for Rich Iott based on the New York Times and their FiveThirtyEight Forecast for Ohio's 9th congressional district. They are predicting a 61-36 victory for Kaptur (margin of error at the moment is 8.9 percent) and they give Kaptur a 99.7 percent chance of victory.

Pictured: Rich Iott in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform at an undated Wiking ceremony; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Imagine if Iott had collected and released a bunch of images from his re-enactment events and included the so-called Nazi image in its proper context: as part of a larger interest in military history. Then pundits who took the Nazi image out of context would look like people deliberately twisting an innocent image for political gain, and this "story" would have little effect (I do not believe for a single second that Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer or fetishist).

Instead, we have Iott scrambling to explain why he is in a Waffen-SS uniform, and this will dog him for at least a few days. Moreover, the repeated airing of these images will stick to Iott in subtle-but-substantial ways among undecided voters.

In my opinion this is a significant PR problem for Iott, and unfortunately it was handled stupidly. This is yet another race that should have been focused on issues, but instead will be derailed by poor planning and irrelevant Internet history.

Moral to the story: if a politician has anything that could be twisted and used as political hay, it is best to get it out in the open and "own" the material. Getting it sprung into the campaign by a political opponent almost always guarantees that the candidate will be on the defensive addressing the charge, and this is a waste of both financial and political capital. Also, just deleting material from a website doesn't make it disappear, as tools like the Wayback Machine theoretically keep Internet material alive forever.

In the case of Rich Iott, the Internet images he thought had been erased are going to sink his campaign.