As the U.S. election season grinds forward to its inevitable November conclusion, it was unavoidable that we would find ourselves talking about plagiarism scandals and whether or not a certain candidate plagiarized the works of another.
Ever since plagiarism allegations helped to derail now-Vice President Joe Biden’s 1987 Presidential bid, accusations of plagiarism have become a popular attack to use to try and discredit opposing candidates. We saw this repeatedly during the 2008 elections with Barack Obama and John McCain both facing allegations of plagiarism (neither with any real validity).
Now we’ve seen the first example of such an attack for the 2016 election, this one targeting Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
However, even a cursory examination of the allegations shows them to be thin, with most of the similarities being trivially explained by tropes that politicians use and similar themes caused by two candidates positioning themselves as triumphant underdogs.
But the story should serve as a warning to the candidates, plagiarism will be at the forefront of this election and you don’t want your campaign to be the one derailed by a serious allegation.
The Marco Rubio Plagiarism Scandal
On February 1st, shortly after the conclusion of the Iowa caucuses, Marco Rubio took to the stage to address his supporters.
Though he had finished third in the results, it was a stronger finish for him than many expected and he gave what many classified as a “victory” speech. However, it didn’t take long before his political opponents, in particular Democrats, noticed what they felt were similarities between his speech and President Obama’s 2008 speech after he won the caucus.
This feeling was bolstered by a tweet from Jon Favreau, who was the speechwriter for President Obama and penned his 2008 speech.
He could’ve at least thanked Obama for the opening line https://t.co/meP627U6pv
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) February 2, 2016
Attention was drawn mostly closely to the opening of both speeches. Marco Rubio’s speech opened with:
“So this is the moment they said would never happen. For months, for months they told us we had no chance. For months they told us because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance. For months they told us because we didn’t have the right endorsements or the right political connections, we had no chance. They told me that we have no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high.”
In 2008, President Obama opened his speech with this:
“They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
The similarities were enough for several commentators to call Rubio a plagiarist, however, from an objective standpoint, the allegations leave a great deal to be desired.
The Problems with the Allegations
To be clear, the two speeches are similar. But similarity is not the same as plagiarism.
In both cases the candidates were viewed as underdogs who rose to do better than expected in the Iowa caucuses. While they were both channeling the same theme, namely the underdog turned victor, that’s a trope that’s been around in politics for as long as there have been elections.
The trope can also be found outside of politics as well. It’s a key part of many sports films and many dramas. The idea of an odds-defying underdog coming out on top is a deeply-engrained part of our culture.
But even though some commenters are claiming that it’s the overall message that’s important, it’s not an original message to either candidate or any candidate at all. If we were to ding Rubio for plagiarism, then we’d have to do the same for almost every other candidate that spoke of defying odds and overcoming doubters.
The truth is this. There was no matching text between the two intros, as you can see in the screenshot below (Note: Matching text would be highlighted):
The claims of nearly word-for-word plagiarism some commentators have made just don’t hold up.
With no matching text, themes that are common among both political candidates and pop culture and no other similarities other than the time and place they were given, it’s not a strong plagiarism case and, like most plagiarism accusations when it comes to politics, falls pretty flat.
All of this being said, I do believe that Rubio was trying to channel some of the same energy and spirit as Obama did with his speech. Rubio and his team, undoubtedly, watched and studied Obama’s speech knowing that it was a step for him on the path to the White House.
But studying what others have done before you and trying to channel some of the same emotions, even using the same tropes, is not plagiarism. If that were the case, how many stories would be a plagiarism of Gilgamesh or The Odyssey?
The truth is simple. Politicians, even opposing ones, are going to touch on the same subjects, they’re going to try and inspire the same energy and they are going to do so using the same tropes. Just because two politicians say similar things doesn’t make one of them a plagiarist.
However, this story is a warning for Rubio and the other candidates still in the race. Your opponents are watching and they are they are deeply examining your work for possible plagiarism issues.
While you can’t stop opponents from incorrectly claiming that you plagiarized, you can certainly avoid actual plagiarism. Take the time to make sure everything you put out is either original or properly cited.
Even a small citation or paraphrasing misstep could become a major distraction or even derail your candidacy if you aren’t careful.
Some basic precautions can save a great deal of headache down the road.