WASHINGTON -- As voters continue to demonstrate their disdain for the tone of political campaigns by staying away from the polls in droves, the debate goes on within the political community about who's to blame.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant involved in the Bob Dole campaign in 1996, told CNN recently that "coverage of politics has been very cynical" and that the news media is "the most negative institution in American politics today."
He is not alone in that view. A recent survey of 196 professional political consultants active in national campaigns in the last three election cycles provided this not too surprising answer about whose fault it is that politics is held in such low regard: Don't look at us.
The poll of 200 consultants, slightly more Democrats than
Republicans, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, pointed a collective finger instead at the news media, the voters themselves and, in some cases, at the candidates.
The survey, conducted in association with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, found the consultants generally absolving themselves of responsibility, perhaps because, the report said, "most do not think campaign practices that suppress turnout, use scare tactics and take facts out of context are unethical."
The survey indicated that the consultants consider the prime culprit for the low state of public confidence in politics to be print and broadcast journalism. While 60 percent said negative campaigning was the chief cause of voter concern, 63 percent said it was the news coverage of it that most caused voter cynicism, to only 24 percent who said it was the negative campaigning itself.
The consultants acknowledged in the survey that they themselves most often are the ones to recommend "going negative" to their candidates; 83 percent of Democratic consultants and 77 percent of Republicans said so. "Consultants do draw the line at making campaign statements that are factually untrue," the survey said, "and at using push polls, which provide negative information about an opponent under the pretense of taking a poll."
But, the Pew report said, "political consultants say a candidate's message is the key to winning an election, and they place few limits on just what that message can be." The report summed up the strategy as "if it works, do it."
It is an old contention of politicians that it is not so much the message of a campaign that counts as how it is conveyed by the messenger -- not the candidate himself and the spin he puts on it, but the reporters and commentators who write and analyze what he says. And of the consultants surveyed, 67 percent rated the quality of political journalists as only fair or poor, and nearly half said that quality has dropped during their careers.
The survey found that 55 percent of the consultants said the major problem for the political system was that good people were discouraged from running for office "by the amount of media attention to their personal lives" and "disproportionate attention to negative tactics" by the press -- ironically, tactics that most consultants readily embrace.
Beyond being defensive about their own contribution to public distrust, most of the consultants indicated a coolness toward public financing or ending "soft money" -- unlimited backdoor contributions to campaigns. As practitioners in a lucrative business, that's not surprising either. The survey found that more than 70 percent of those polled make $100,000 or more a year.
The "thrill of competition" motivates them even more than the considerable money to be made in the field or the political influence they may wield, they told the Pew pollsters. When the late Vince Lombardi proclaimed that winning wasn't everything, it was the only thing, he was talking about football. But to some folks, the comment seems to apply just as well to politics.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/03/98