A lot is known -- or at least a lot is said -- about the influence of political campaigns on voters. Much less attention has been paid to the effect of campaigning on the candidates. Now an ambitious effort is underway to try to figure it out.
Campaigns & Elections, a trade journal for political professionals and political junkies, has launched a project with the University of Maryland, financed by the ubiquitous Pew Charitable Trusts, to ask the candidates themselves what lessons they have drawn from the experience of running. The August issue of the magazine contains three articles outlining the initial results.
Probably the best summary comes from Bill Hamilton and Dave Beattie, both Democratic pollsters, and Republican pollster Lori Weigel, who talked individually or in small focus groups with several dozen elected officials and candidates of both parties, ranging from the U.S. Senate down to the state legislature.
The article on which they collaborated says of these candidates: "Many start off as civic-minded `purists' trying to convey to the voters specific views on what they believe to be vital matters of public policy. But by the end of their first campaign, most weld into the current regime of American political campaigning that has as its guiding light this precept: To win, you need to raise plenty of money so you can control the communication of a largely comparative message."
"Comparative" here is a term of art. Few want to acknowledge running negative campaigns. In a separate survey of 364 state legislative candidates, reported in the same issue, only one percent said their own last campaign was mostly negative and only 26 percent said it was mainly comparative -- focusing on the differences between their own positions and their opponents'. The rest -- more than seven out of 10 -- claimed they had run mainly positive campaigns, not mentioning or criticizing their opponents.
On the other hand, one in three said their opponent's campaign was negative, so it's evident they are grading on a fairly flexible standard.
Whatever the label a more objective observer might assign to these campaigns, the message Hamilton and Beattie got from their candidate focus groups speaks volumes about the tone and character of what they call "the new rules and norms for campaigning."
They reduce it to four propositions:
"First, these candidates were mostly pleased with their campaign consultants and felt they had explained to them the new campaign politics." It must be comforting to the consultants who read this magazine that their mentoring and guidance is so appreciated by the clients who pay them well for their tutelage.
"Second, by and large, the press was often viewed as spread too thin or just lazy, simplistic and generally not helpful in carrying campaign messages to the public." As part of that benighted group, I would say: Spread too thin? Certainly. Just lazy? Not the reporters I know. Simplistic? Probably, because of the inevitable compression of space and time in the paper or on the air. Not helpful? The function of a reporter is not to be helpful to a candidate but to be attentive, accurate and balanced. Often, candidates find that kind of coverage anything but helpful.
"Third, because of this, candidates said it was necessary to raise plenty of money to communicate and control messages to voters." No one can dispute that money looms very large in today's campaigns. That's why subsidized communications -- free mailings or reduced-rate TV and radio time -- are such a promising area for campaign finance reform.
"Fourth, the candidates think voters best remember negative or comparative advertising -- requiring candidates who have been attacked to `hit back' quickly." My guess is that this lesson is part of the indoctrination the consultants give their candidates, and it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling proposition. It is but a short step from "hit back quickly" to "get in the first punch," and that is what we're seeing in more and more campaigns.
It may be a good thing to spend some of the inexhaustible Pew millions to find out what's going on in the minds of candidates as they contemplate the process by which they seek or gain office. But it's also depressing. Among the interviewed candidates for the state legislature, the starting place for many political careers, Ron Faucheux and Paul S. Herrnson report, "nearly three-fourths take the dim view that the American public is either very poorly (30 percent) or somewhat poorly (43 percent) informed on major policy issues."
That is the real challenge for politicians and press alike, but there's no evidence in this report that the candidates or consultants worry about that problem nearly as much as they do about hitting back quickly when attacked.