Campaign trail veers off course

October 31, 2002|By Paul S. Herrnson and Ronald A. Faucheux

The modern craft of winning elections is too often about divide and conquer.

At this point in the most competitive races, campaigns have been hurling muddy ads onto a soggy battlefield. With computer precision, campaigns slice and dice voters into deliverable constituencies. Candidates fight for survival, as if everything ends on Election Day. It doesn't. The job really begins after an election victory. Yet governing often involves just the opposite of slice-and-dice politics -- assembling coalitions.

The divide between campaigning and governing applies to the presidency and to offices further down the ballot. Many of the current races in this region -- from governor to Congress, mayor to county executive -- will likely demonstrate this disconnection.

Two years ago, the presidential candidates talked about a wide range of domestic issues, but precious little about foreign policy, international terrorism and homeland security. Campaigns love to focus on issues they think will deliver voters, not necessarily the challenges winners might face in office.

Nevertheless, governing continues to be about making compromises and building coalitions. In order to enact public policy, office holders regularly find themselves "courting" opponents and advocacy groups they criticized in the campaign. The candidate with the sharpest sword, who carves out a winning electoral base, often can't quite reassemble the severed parts once in office.

Many candidates know this only too well, as a recent study reveals. The University of Maryland and Campaigns & Elections magazine, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, surveyed more than 4,000 candidates nationwide about campaigning and governing and found:

Fully 85 percent of all respondents acknowledged few or no connections between being a good candidate and being a good public official.

When asked how well the campaign prepared them for office, 44 percent responded "poorly or not at all." Another 42 percent said "moderately well." Only 14 percent considered themselves very or extremely well prepared.

Candidates for federal and statewide offices -- where voter targeting has become routine -- showed the greatest skepticism. Nearly one-third of statewide candidates felt campaign issues were almost never important to governing. Only half as many candidates for local offices felt the same.

If so many candidates publicly acknowledge a gap between the path to office and success on the job, something's seriously wrong with the way campaigns are run. The problem goes deeper than campaign financing and regulation; the fault lies in the swirl of forces that have changed the culture of electoral politics.

The expense and pressures of fast-paced campaigning driven largely by new technologies and intensified partisan competition have diminished the importance of substantive policy discussion in campaigns. Candidates, political consultants, party officials and interest group leaders, whether they prefer to or not, are often forced to play a rough game of offense.

Serious issues get transformed into clubs to beat opponents, mere tools of strategic positioning. These trends, so evident in national and statewide races, are now seeping into state legislative, local and judicial campaigns.

Although it takes an increasing measure of courage, candidates can and do run smart, effective, winning campaigns without hopelessly alienating the folks they'll have to do business with on the job. Before embracing the quick fix, slice-and-dice mentality, candidates ought to tremble a little when they remember that they just might win.

Paul S. Herrnson directs the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ronald A. Faucheux is editor in chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine.

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