Tips from the Trail: Dealing with Online Embarrassment

Virginia’s 1st congressional district, which hugs the Chesapeake Bay and is often referred to as “America’s first district” because it includes colonial Jamestown, has not been represented by a Democrat since 1977.

Virginia’s 1st congressional district, which hugs the Chesapeake Bay and is often referred to as “America’s first district” because it includes colonial Jamestown, has not been represented by a Democrat since 1977. Given 2010’s prevailing political winds, the district was not competitive territory for a Democratic candidate. Nevertheless, then-twenty-eight-year-old businesswoman Krystal Ball waged a spirited campaign against the incumbent Republican. When embarrassing photos of Ball appeared on the Internet, her path to victory was made even more difficult. While Ball may not have won her race, her response to the mini-scandal provides a model for other candidates who may be forced to deal with similar situations in the future.

Entering the race, Ball had some reason for hope—in 2008, John McCain won her district by just 3 points, and the Republican incumbent, Rep. Rob Wittman, had been in Congress for just two terms. Then, on October 5, a series of sexually suggestive images of a then-twenty-two-year-old Ball taken at a holiday party were posted on a conservative blog and threatened to destroy her campaign. (The blog has since removed the post.)

After the images were released, NPR ran a story equating her pictures to the damaging photos of Republican candidate from Ohio’s 9th district, Rick Iott, taken when he was dressed as a Nazi SS officer during an historical reenactment. (An even closer parallel was encountered later in October by the Delaware Republican senatorial candidate, Christine O’Donnell, when Gawker published images of her dressed as a lady bug for a Halloween party along with accusations that she had had a “one night stand.” Those allegations and images were considered potentially damaging to her campaign.)

Richmond NBC News reporter, Ryan Nobles, said in a newscast detailing the scandal that the “scantily clad” photos of Ball would increase the already stacked odds against her. "The photos are not what you'd expect from a woman hoping to be elected to Congress, and Krystal Ball knows it," said Nobles.

Ball faced a difficult decision. She says that the traditional means of dealing with the rapidly maturing scandal is to go media dark and hope the subject fades away. “All my advisors told me to do that,” she recalls. “Some suggested that I distance myself, or claim that it wasn’t me or just ignore it altogether.”

Instead, she contacted Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president and CEO of Women’s Campaign Forum, which runs the program Name It, Change It, devoted to countering sexist treatment of female political candidates. Bennett had herself encountered rampant sexism during several runs for office earlier last decade, chronicled in detail here. Ball says Bennett was the only person who advised her to address the issue immediately and specifically call it what it was: sexist.

Bennett’s group had previously commissioned an extensive study, performed by the Democratic research firm Lake Research Partners, which found that any sexist or misogynistic attack on a female candidate is often profoundly damaging to her candidacy. “The other thing we found was that as long as a woman responded immediately and called the incident ‘sexist,’ she regained all the votes she lost and some extra,” says Bennett. “[Voters] say, ‘Wow, you’re right, that is sexist, and I bet her opponent was behind it.’ But until you call it out, voters don’t make that connection.”

Ball quickly went on the offensive, first releasing a written statement on October 11 and, later, a self-produced Web video. Ball followed up with a series of television interviews to denounce what she described as a sexist attack. Her opponent, Rep. Wittman, told Nobles that he wanted to see the photos removed from the Internet, and his campaign circulated a request for this to be done via Twitter.

The story soon ceased to be a significant campaign issue. Ball says that a poll taken by her campaign two weeks later showed that not only had the incident not had a negative impact on her campaign, she had in fact gained points. “We got my side of the story out there,” she says Ball. “We asked voters if you have seen [information on Ball], did it give you a more or less favorable impression of Krystal—80 percent of people who had seen something of me in the media said it improved their impression [of me] or was neutral.”

“She estimated that she gained 8 to 10 points as a direct result of her response,” says Bennett. “She turned into a national media darling and was a superb spokesperson for us. She is a gifted woman with a bright future in politics.”

Ball went on to lose the race by 29 points, but the margin could have been substantially worse had she not addressed the photo issue directly. Furthermore, had she not addressed it, her political career would likely have come to an abrupt end, whereas now some are asking about her plans for the future.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at

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