Aiken – Political consultant and strategist to the Republican Party
(February 27, 1951 – March 29, 1991)
Atwater was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and graduated from Newberry College, a small private Lutheran institution in Newberry. He married and was father of three daughters.
Atwater was an advisor of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He was also a political mentor and close friend of Republican strategist Karl Rove. Atwater invented or improved upon many of the techniques of modern electoral politics; including promulgating unflattering rumors and attempting to drive up opponents’ “negative” poll numbers as techniques. His foes have characterized him as the “happy hatchet man” and “the Darth Vader of the Republican party.”
Atwater rose during the 1970’s and the 1980 election in the South Carolina Republican party, working on the campaigns of Governor Carroll Campbell and Senator Strom Thurmond. During his years in South Carolina, Atwater became well known for running hard edged campaigns based on emotional “wedge issues.”
Atwater’s aggressive tactics were first demonstrated during the 1980 congressional campaigns. He was a campaign consultant to Republican incumbent Floyd Spence in his campaign for Congress against Democratic nominee Tom Turnipseed. Atwater’s tactics in that campaign included push polling in the form of fake surveys by “independent pollsters” to “inform” white suburbanites that Turnipseed was allegedly a member of the NAACP. Atwater also highlighted that Turnipseed had been “hooked up to jumper cables” as a teen undergoing electroshock therapy for depression.
After the 1980 election Atwater went to Washington and became an aide in the Ronald Reagan administration, working under political director Ed Rollins. During his years in Washington Atwater became aligned with Vice President Bush, who chose Atwater to run his 1988 presidential campaign.