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    What America Thinks
    The Artful Dodgers

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, June 22, 1998

    When my son Joshua was a hard-charging toddler, he occasionally would bump hard into something and send something else crashing to the floor. "It broke," he would announce, his bright eyes searching the air for the responsible sinister force.

    There's similar but less forgivable artful dodging revealed in a new survey of 200 political consultants conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. These consultants, the field generals of American politics, take no responsibility for the consequences of their acts while dishing out heaps of disdain for the candidates who hire them and for the voters they seek to woo, according to the poll.

    "Political consultants have clear consciences," reports Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "Most do not think campaign practices that suppress turnout, use scare tactics and take facts out of context are unethical. They are nearly unanimous – 97 percent – in the belief that negative advertising is not wrong, and few blame themselves for public disillusionment with the political process."

    The sheer magnitude of their denial is dizzying and deeply disturbing. Despite the public's call for more focus in campaigns on issues and solutions to problems, eight in 10 consultants said it was acceptable for a campaign to "focus primarily on criticizing opponent." Nearly as many – seven in 10 – said it was acceptable for a campaign to "focus primarily on the kind of person a candidate is, rather than issues."

    More than a third agree that it's OK to use "scare tactics" about an opponent's positions. Slightly over one in five said it was acceptable to try "to suppress turnout" in an election (in other words, convince voters not to exercise their right to vote); fewer than half rated this practice as "clearly unethical," while the remainder said it was "questionable."

    No wonder Americans are so cynical about politics, and why only about a third likely will go to the polls in November.

    Of course, political consultants say don't blame them because politics is broke. "Instead, consultants most often point fingers at the news media, the public, and even their own clients," Kohut and his team of researchers wrote in a summary of the survey results released last week. "According to these political pros, the news media is the leading cause of voter cynicism today. The media pays disproportionate attention to negative tactics and is harming the system by discouraging good candidates from running, they say."

    Besides, consultants say the voters get the negative, mean-spirited, issueless campaigns they deserve. Two in three consultants characterized the public as poorly informed on the issues. Little wonder, then, that a big majority of consultants says it's the public's fault that campaigns turn sour; negative campaigns work best, most consultants said.

    Arrogance bordering on contempt permeates other findings, as well. Consultants also faulted voters for lacking good judgment. Fewer than half – 42 percent – said they had a "great deal of confidence" in the "wisdom of the American people." (Companion surveys of presidential appointment and senior federal civil servants found these groups were even less respectful of the voters. Only a third of each of these groups expressed high levels of confidence in the voters' ability to do the right thing on election day.)

    Remarkably, consultants have a decidedly ambivalent view of the politicians who hire them. About half – 52 percent – rated congressional candidates as excellent or good, while 48 percent rated them as only fair or poor. Little wonder, then, that 44 percent acknowledged that they "have helped elect candidates who they were eventually sorry to see serve in office." (And here's the really chilling number: More than four in 10 said candidate quality is declining.)

    "But consultants generally have few regrets," Kohut wrote. "A candidate's ability to govern effectively is secondary in deciding whether to take on a race. Instead, a candidate's political beliefs and ability to pay are primary considerations. By a margin of three-to-one, political pros think that a weak message is a bigger barrier to electoral success" than a mediocre campaigner.

    What wins elections? Message and money, the consultants said. Eight in 10 – 82 percent – rated the "quality of a candidate's message" as most important, closely followed by the "amount of money available to a candidate." More than four in 10 said that with enough money, they "can sell voters on a weak campaigner," according to the poll of professional political pollsters, fund-raisers, media consultants and general political consultants conducted November 1997 to March 1998.

    Few consultants place limits on what a candidate's message may be, Kohut wrote. "Most are unconcerned about personal attacks or other forms of negative campaigning. Rather, they see negative campaigning as an effective strategy, and fully 81 percent say when campaigns turn negative, it is usually because a consultant – not a candidate – recommends it." (Now we know who to blame.)

    Consultants are markedly indifferent – in some instances, hostile – to campaign finance reform. Only one in four think it's a good idea to provide public financing to candidates who accept spending limits. One in six support doing away with so-called "soft money" contributions. And even fewer – 14 percent – support limiting spending by issue advocacy groups.

    "Most consultants believe that campaigning by issues advocacy groups on behalf of a candidate generally helps the campaign – not to mention the fact that in many cases it represents free advertising for the client," Kohut wrote.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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