Voter revolution may be forming against dirty political tactics

July 20, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In this polls-happy society, the quest never ends to determine what John Q. Public thinks about everything under the sun, even when the answers are obvious beforehand.

For example, a new survey of 1,600 registered voters in the states of Ohio and Washington reports that most voters want cleaner campaigns that are less negative. Big surprise.

In the bipartisan survey by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster John Deardourff, voters were asked whether they would have more respect for a candidate who signed a code of conduct and lived up to it. Some 79 percent said they would.

Well, would they be more likely to vote for such a candidate and vote in an election that had such a code? Again, 74 percent said yes. Also, 59 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who violated such a code. All this provides a positive premise for the poll's sponsor, the Project on Campaign Conduct, that codes of conduct drawn up by the candidates themselves or nonpartisan citizen panels are wanted and needed in the various states.

The poll found that voters have clear ideas on what they think constitutes fair and unfair and unethical conduct. Criticizing an opponent on his record is OK (75 percent) or for talking one way and voting another (79 percent). But those polled don't want candidates to make campaign issues of a foe's personal financial problems (only 26 percent said it is OK), family members' behavior (12 percent) or past troubles such as alcoholism or smoking marijuana (33 percent).

Respondents in the same poll didn't have illusions about what will happen absent such codes. An overwhelming 92 percent said it's likely candidates will continue to exchange personal attacks; 90 percent said it's likely they will mislead the voters about each other's records; 89 percent said they expect candidates will say one thing when they're running and do another once elected.

These figures suggest a voter revolution forming against the way things are done in politics. Brad Rourke, of the Project on Campaign Conduct, says the poll indicates "there is a mood afoot, and that candidates would do well to pay heed to this growing trend."

But another poll, by the Washington Post and ABC News, provides grounds for candidates to ignore such a trend, if it does exist. A nationwide telephone survey of 1,511 adults found that campaign reform ranked low on the list of issues that concern voters as the fall elections approach, well behind education, Social Security, tax reform and patients' rights.

In this survey, only 32 percent said changing the way political campaigns are financed was very important. In fact, the poll found, 1 in 10 voters said it would be decisive in how they voted. This seeming contradiction appears to reflect a difference between wishful thinking among voters and political reality as they see it.

Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute of Global Ethics that led the Project on Campaign Conduct, says "voters strongly believe that ethics matter in politics as much as in everyday life," and that "hypocrisy is a cardinal sin."

But that notion is questioned as well by other results in the Post/ABC Poll, at least as they regard President Clinton. Some 57 percent of voters said they believe he lied under oath in denying he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, and 44 percent said they believe he is less honest than most presidents, 63 percent still said they approved of him as president.

That indicates that even when Mr. Clinton is perceived as unethical and hypocritical, his support remains remarkably high.

Professional political consultants have long contended that they may prefer not to engage in negative campaign practices, but they do so because "it works." If that is the case, only if voters back up their expressed dislike of negative and unethical conduct in politics, by casting their ballots against candidates who continue to engage in them, is the practice likely to diminish.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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