Voters need to check those negative TV ads



WASHINGTON -- It is politically foolhardy for a politician to blame the voters for failures in the system, as President Clinton seemed to be doing the other day and as then President Jimmy Carter seemed to be doing with his notorious "malaise speech" 15 years ago. Voters are too accustomed to being courted to welcome straight talk from those seeking their support.

But the hard truth is that political campaigns might not be such mindless and negative exercises as the 1994 campaign proved to be if more voters paid more attention and demanded something better from the candidates and their strategists.

Everyone likes to complain, for example, about the negative tone of the campaigns and particularly the reliance on commercials that make accusations based on flimsy evidence. But whatever their complaints, the voters accept these negative television spots as providing "information" and allow their opinions to be shaped by them.

Campaign managers have learned that the way to "move the numbers" -- that is, to improve a candidate's position in the opinion polls -- is to "go negative." Positive commercials rarely work.

This might not happen if more voters took the trouble to look into the truth behind the charges in the commercials. But they don't -- even when newspapers provide factual analyses of the spots, as most do these days.

On the contrary, most voters now say they gain their knowledge of a campaign by watching television news programs, most of which present only the skimpiest coverage of complex issues. Reading long position papers or even newspaper accounts of them apparently is simply too much trouble.

Many voters seem to believe they are paying close attention to a campaign if they manage to watch a televised debate or two. But the fact is that candidates usually use debates only to repeat their standard stump speech and to zing their opponents with the same kind of half-truth accusations they use in their commercials.

And even when the debates are more rewarding, there is a legitimate question about how much weight should be given to debating ability in deciding who would make a better governor or senator.

There have been occasions in which voters became so fed up with the conduct of politicians that the politicians had to mend their ways. In North Carolina's Senate race in 1984, for example, the tone of the campaign between Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic challenger Jim Hunt was so harshly negative that the electorate reacted angrily. The result was that in a Senate race two years later between Democrat Terry Sanford and Republican Jim Broyhill, neither candidate dared "go negative" against his opponent.

The reform in North Carolina didn't last long, however. In 1990 Helms defeated Harvey Gantt, a black former mayor of Charlotte, with a final-week television spot on affirmative action that played on racial resentments in the electorate. Gantt was holding a narrow lead, but "going negative" worked and Helms won another term.

The most immediate result of lousy campaigns is, of course, a decline in participation. Potential voters find nothing to give them a reason to bother going to the polling places when they have been treated to nothing more than exchanges of half-baked charges.

But the long-term result is growing alienation in the potential electorate. What's the point of paying a lot of attention when the choice is between a knave and a poltroon?

To some degree, the mindless quality of the 1994 campaign might be attributed to the lack of compelling and significant issues. There is no public question facing the country comparable to policy on civil rights or the war in Vietnam -- issues that provided litmus tests for voters of another generation.

There are, nonetheless, differences between the two parties and between candidates more significant than the question of which one has the most venal and effective television spots. So if "going negative" works with a lazy electorate, it's what we can expect.

In the long run, the voters get what they deserve, for better or worse.

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