‘Tis the season. Political candidates and parties are in full spin cycle, preparing for this fall’s election. It seems that the higher the office at stake, the more hype voters have to endure.
In presidential election years, the hysteria, distortion and downright lies seem to know no bounds. Along with candidates, political action committees (PACs) and political parties, we have the huge and growing issue of independent expenditures-the so-called 527 organizations (named after the IRS code that defines the rules under which they operate) that are set up to support or oppose a candidate. These organizations (example: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who opposed John Kerry’s presidential bid) are often but not always the worst offenders. They get away with saying things the candidates can’t and are not as tightly regulated as other players.
Sometimes the claims made are so outrageous that it’s easy to laugh at them. Sometimes they backfire-my favorite recent example is Claire McCaskill, the freshman U.S. senator from Missouri. McCaskill’s opponent so demonized her that she made a joke of it and won points for her success. McCaskill said that her opponent had said so many negative things about her that he might as well come right out and say that she’s the devil’s daughter.
While I admire McCaskill’s ability to roll with the punches, like many voters, I am increasingly bothered by two things about this kind of political gamesmanship. Negative, personality-based campaigning takes energy and time away from what’s really important in a political campaign: a candidate discussing her vision. I do think a candidate’s character is important, because knowing about it gives voters insight into why she acts as she does and what her priorities might be. But negative campaigning is different. It’s nitpicking at minor points and making them into major ones.
Sometimes it’s easy to sift through exaggerated and downright untrue claims. A couple of recent ones that have my undies in a bundle are contained in press releases from the DFL Party, attacking incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. The first of these missives contained a nifty graph showing how the price of gas has gone up in the six years since Coleman was elected to the U.S. Senate. The accompanying text pointed out that Coleman has taken more money from oil company interests than any other member of the U.S. Senate, past or present.
It’s ludicrous to tie the rise in gas prices to oil contributions to one U.S. senator. Not a day goes by that major media outlets don’t discuss and analyze the “pain at the pump” that affects, directly or indirectly, all of us. It’s impossible to avoid hearing about it.
To expect voters to believe that Coleman is responsible may backfire on the DFL, just like the attacks on McCaskill backfired on her opponent. This press release may fall in the category of being so outrageous that one should laugh at it. But when you add it to other negative campaigning that is rampant, it’s hard to laugh, especially when voters are asked to believe something so far-fetched that it insults our intelligence.
While the DFL’s tying oil prices to campaign contributions is disingenuous at best, a current commercial attacking Al Franken, the DFL-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate, is a downright lie. The commercial, produced by a 527 organization, features an actor who played a gangster on the popular “The Sopranos” series. In character, the actor refers to Franken as “My pal Al” and praises the DFLer for opposing the right of workers to vote by secret ballot in union elections.
In fact, Franken is a staunch union supporter and has the endorsements to prove it. And employers have had the right to a require a secret ballot in organizing efforts since 1948. The anti-Franken ad distorts legislation that Franken supports, which would add the option for workers to sign up publicly, making it easier to form unions and giving employers less control over organizing efforts. The legislation Franken backs is supported by labor unions too. The group that sponsors the ads is a partnership of national business groups that oppose the legislation.
Everyone I talk to decries negative campaigning. “I want to hear about the issues, not their personalities,” we say. At the same time, campaign professional and political scientists tell us time and time again that negative campaigning works. Why does it work? Maybe it’s because bottom line, voters often mistrust politicians-sometimes for good reasons. What does it say about us-all of us, voters and candidates and media and experts-that we are more compelled to vote against our fears than we are to vote for our hopes?
That’s more than I can tackle here. But it’s something to think about this campaign season.