Was It a Hanky?

Romney’s Hanky & More Debate Cheating Conspiracy Theories (PHOTOS)

From Romney’s handkerchief to Kerry’s card to Palin’s palm, see politicians accused of cheating.

AP Photo (4)

AP Photo (4)

America has almost unanimously deemed Mitt Romney the winner of the first presidential debate Wednesday night, but did he beat Obama fair and square? A closer look at a video of Romney taking the stage that surfaced on Reddit late Thursday night shows the Republican candidate taking what looks like a piece of paper or some notecards out of his pocket and placing them on the podium in front of him. His campaign says it was a handkerchief. But naturally, conspiracy theories abound! Romney’s not the first politician to weather accusations of rule breaking during a debate. The Daily Beast takes a closer look at the Romney mystery and other debate cheating scandals.

—by Caitlin Dickson

Eric Gay / AP Photo

Mitt Romney (2012)

Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul has already responded to the buzz surrounding the candidate’s alleged cheat sheet, insisting that the only thing Romney pulled out of his pocket was a handkerchief, which a separate video of Romney wiping his face during the debate seems to confirm. While the Commission on Presidential Debates has not made its set of rules for 2012 public, 2004’s contract explicitly says, “No props, notes, charts, diagrams, or other writings or any other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate.” Candidates are, of course, allowed to take notes during the debate—as we saw both Romney and Obama do Wednesday night—but only on a commission-provided notepad. So if the same rules still apply and what Romney pulled out of his pocket was notes and not a hanky, we could have a cheating scandal on our hands. Stay tuned!

Don Emmert / AFP-Getty Images

Mitt Romney (2008)

What will henceforth be referred to as Hankygate isn’t the first smudge on Romney’s debate résumé. During a 2008 Republican presidential-primary debate, he was asked if he would “do for Social Security what Ronald Reagan did in 1983.” In a video of the debate, “He raised taxes” is heard whispered off camera before Romney responds with, “I’m not going to raise taxes.” Later in the same debate, sharp ears can hear a whisper seemingly reminding Romney to use the word “support.” MSNBC, which hosted the debate, suggested the whispers were simply the mumblings of an audience member accidentally picked up by a microphone. But that explanation left many unconvinced, fueling allegations that the “whispering audience member” was a Romney campaign handler using some kind of ultrasound-based communicator (a real thing) to help the candidate. Romney’s spokesperson at the time echoed MSNBC’s explanation, and the Commission on Presidential Debates executive director said, “You have to assume that a code of honor is being followed.”

Ron Edmonds / AP Photo

George W. Bush (2004)

Is that a bulge in the back of your pants, Mr. President, or are you just happy to be here? That’s what Americans—specifically those with old-school blog pages—were left wondering after an image of President Bush leaning over the podium during his first debate with Democratic challenger John Kerry in 2004 seemed to suggest that Bush was packing something under that suit jacket. Since the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t attach any electronic devices to the candidates, setting up microphones on their podiums instead, the blogosphere’s conclusion was that the bulge may have been a transmissions receiver used by someone off stage to feed Bush answers through an invisible earpiece. The conspiracy fire was fueled by subsequent observations that Bush seemed uncharacteristically hunched over during the debate, took uncomfortably long pauses during answers, and even had a bizarre outburst or two. Salon’s Dave Lindorff dug a little deeper and discovered that the photo came from Fox News, which filmed Bush and Kerry from behind despite an agreement between the commission and both campaigns that cameras would not be set up behind the candidates. A spyware expert and surveillance shop owner analyzed the photo in question and told Lindorff that there was a chance Bush could have been equipped with a two-way radio device that allows communication through a microchip radio hidden deep in the ear canal. Neither the White House nor the Bush campaign addressed questions about whether the president was wearing a wire during the debate—or any other events—so the truth behind the bulge shall remain a mystery.

Ron Edmonds / AP Photo

John Kerry (2004)

Bush wasn’t the only one accused of cheating during that October 2004 face-off. In a postdebate blog post that is no longer available online, the Drudge Report asked, “Did Kerry Have a Cheat Sheet?” Noting the commission’s rules about props, charts, diagrams, and whatnot, Drudge pointed to a video (also no longer available online) that shows Kerry take “a mysterious card” out of his jacket pocket and place it on the podium when he first walks on stage. A Kerry campaign insider responded to Drudge’s accusations by insisting, “Kerry did not cheat. This is more lies from Republicans, who are hoping for a quick change of subject away from the president’s performance and the new polls.” Again, whether this insider is right or whether Kerry was using a cheat sheet is unknown.

Scott McIntyre / AP Photo-Pool

Alex Sink (2010)

Cheating scandals aren’t limited to presidential debates. In October 2010, a campaign adviser to Florida gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink got in big trouble for breaking the rules during a CNN/St. Petersburg Times debate. During a television break, a makeup artist came up to Sink and showed her a text message from said adviser, offering advice for the next segment of the debate. Sink and her aide were spotted looking at the text message by Republican challenger Rick Scott, who notified a CNN official. The cellphone was confiscated, and after the debate Sink’s campaign announced that the adviser who sent the text had been fired. “While he told me it was out of anger with Rick Scott’s repeated distortion of facts, it was a foolish thing to do. It violated a debate agreement, and I immediately removed him from the campaign,” Sink said.

Ed Reinke / AP Photo

Sarah Palin (2010)

Perhaps one of the most notorious political cheating scandals didn’t take place during a debate or even an election. Sarah Palin, of all people, knows it can be hard to come up with answers to tricky questions on the spot. After all, she’d been a frequent victim of “gotcha!” journalism as John McCain’s running mate during the 2008 presidential campaign. So when the former Alaska governor agreed to speak before her cohorts at the Tea Party Convention in February 2010, she was clearly determined not to get caught at a loss for words again, especially during the inevitable Q-and-A session that would follow her speech. Unfortunately for Palin, this time she was caught red-handed—with talking points like “energy,” “budget cut,” “tax,” and “lift American spirits” scribbled on her palm. Though she didn’t break any rules, Palin’s use of the old-fashioned cheating tactic embarrassed her, especially after her regular criticism of President Obama for using a teleprompter during his speeches.