New law may have turned off voters

May 08, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The morning after North Carolina's statewide primary elections, lame-duck Gov. James Hunt sat in his office and reflected on what is hoped will be a new era of cleaner politics in a state known for accentuating the negative.

For the first time, the voters had just chosen the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and lower offices under a new law requiring candidates to appear personally on any television ad mentioning an opponent by name, to identify themselves and say they or their campaign paid for it.

There were few surprises in a primary that, despite the law, had its share of negative commercials. But Mr. Hunt expressed optimism about its impact on the tenor of North Carolina politics. Winding up 16 years as governor, and himself the victim of harsh negative ads in a 1984 failed campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, Mr. Hunt said, "Candidates have thought more seriously about whether [an ad] is something they want to say ... It doesn't mean we have not had hard-hitting negative ads, [but] I think it has reduced the sleaze factor some."

One outcome, however - whether the new law had anything to do with it or not - was a record or near-record low turnout. Some others in North Carolina politics saw indications that, rather than raising voters' approval of the election process, the new wrinkle in television political advertising actually turned them off even more.

Saul Shorr, a Philadelphia ad-maker who worked for the Democratic gubernatorial winner, state Attorney General Michael Easley, and had predicted the low turnout, offered that a candidate owning up to sponsorship of a negative ad clearly created an "obstacle" to overcome in voters' minds. "Some say, `Hold it right there,'" when they see that acknowledgment, he said.

Mr. Shorr said, however, that "I'm not a defender of what we do," admitting the system is "broken" and calling the new law "a step - a small, significant step" toward mending it.

Jay Warshaw, who ran the losing Republican gubernatorial bid of state legislator Leo Daughtry, cited the low turnout as a possible indication that candidates with establishment party support such as the GOP winner, Richard Vinroot, willingly continued to "go negative" in spite of the new requirement, to intentionally depress turnout.

Mr. Warshaw saw a trap in the new law: If a candidate merely responded to a television attack ad with an ad of his own naming the original attacker, voters would probably see that defensive response as negative in itself. "Tactically, you don't want your candidate to say, `I am not a crook,' in our own ad," he said.

A strong critic of the new law, Carter Wrenn, known as one of the nation's masters of negative advertising who helped undo Mr. Hunt in his race against Mr. Helms and is Mr. Vinroot's ad-maker, called it "a study in unintended consequences." When his first negative ad for Mr. Vinroot ran carrying the personal statement of authorship, he said, "People said, `Great. We appreciate your honesty.' It made it a positive negative."

Mr. Wrenn called the new law "a political gimmick" enabling reformers "to say they did something about campaign reform when they didn't do squat." The approach, he said, "is a dead end."

The "Stand By Your Ad" law is only one of several cleaner-campaign initiatives in North Carolina this year.

Others included the granting of free time by stations of the Capital Broadcasting Co. in Raleigh and around the state to five gubernatorial candidates - a total of 90 two-minute segments in April, with issues to be discussed specified and any mention of an opponent prohibited.

Mac McCorkle, a political consultant who was instrumental in pushing the "Stand By Your Ad" concept, said the approach drives candidates "a little more to the comparative" on records and issue positions. "If you're on the ad, it makes you a little more naked out there. The disappearing candidate no longer happens here."

Some here suggest that one particular ad in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker questioning Mr. Easley's party loyalties may have back lashed. Mr. Hunt says it's too soon to evaluate the impact of the new law but, he says, "I think that if an ad is clearly untrue and unfair and sleazy, the candidate who had to `stand up' is going to pay a price."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat - 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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