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When Politics and Plagiarism Mix

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Jul 26, 2016 9:45:03 AM


Shortly after Melania Trump, the wife of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump finished her speech at the Republication National Convention, she began to face allegations of plagiarism.

Specifically, there were allegations that her speech borrowed several passages from a similar 2008 speech by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention. In addition to several dozen copied words, two paragraphs closely mirrored one another in theme, structure and ideas.
However, this isn’t the first time that a major political figure has been accused of plagiarism in a speech. In 2008, now-President Obama was accused of plagiarism as was his opponent, John McCain. In 1987, then-candidate dropped out of the Presidential race due plagiarism allegations as did Senator John Walsh in his Senate campaign in 2014.

But one thing that all of these cases do have in common is that none of them saw any drastic change due to the allegations of plagiarism.

While Walsh and Biden both dropped out after their scandals, both were already significantly behind in the polls and struggling. Odds were that both would have either dropped out or simply lost without the plagiarism allegations.

The battle between Obama and McCain unfolded almost exactly as it would without the allegations of plagiarism. Even the selection of Biden for Vice President didn’t cause a change in the polls, despite the fact he was accused of plagiarism yet again.

In the United States, political plagiarism scandals are, more often than not, merely distractions. They can overtake the news cycle for a few days, but rarely make any kind of a lasting impact on the election as a whole.

Some of this is likely due to our lengthy election cycle, which lasts well over a year, and the fast-moving news cycle that causes stories to rise up with great intensity, but quickly be pushed aside for the next one.

Considering all of the various scandals and stories that will dominate the news over the next few months, it’s easy to see why a plagiarism scandal might not have a great deal of lasting impact.

Still, one thing we’ve learned previously is that the timing of the story is often crucial. In the case of Senator Walsh, opponents leaked the allegations to the press at the most opportune time, effectively ending Walsh’s chances.

While the Melania Trump story is by no means the end to the Trump candidacy, it comes at an inopportune time as well. Conventions are meant to be a time where candidates bask in wall-to-wall media coverage and most bank on getting a bump from their convention.

Instead, much of the convention news cycle was dominated by the Melania Trump story. Even as Trump himself accepted the party’s nomination, the Melania Trump story was still at the forefront of many people’s minds and on the pages of many publications.

While this doesn’t appear to have hurt Trump’s post-convention bump, it is easy to see how it could have.

But, in the end, when plagiarism and politics mix in the United States, it’s usually a short-lived affair. Most likely, by November when Americans head to the polls, the story will be long forgotten.

Still, this doesn’t mean that campaigns should be ambivalent about plagiarism either. Plagiarism is a distraction that can be easily avoided and it’s a political unforced error.

It may not be a political landmine, but it’s still major speed bump and one that is easily avoided with enough care and effort.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.