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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 07/10/06        NJBiz online

Campaings Don't Have to Be Irritating

by Ingrid Reed

The race for the junior U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey between Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. began early this year in June rather than in September. This led to question from both Democrats and Republican Do we have to put up with this for four months?

When I probe for the definition of "this," I get responses such as "mudslinging," "meanness and "negativity."

A decade ago, the bitter Robert Torricell Richard Zimmer Senate race led the Eagleton Institute of Politics to host a 1997 forum on improving campaigns in New Jersey. We continue to support this effort, and to offer ideas for what can be do to engage, rather than enrage, the citizens.

Using the word "negative" to describe ca paigns isn't helpful. You have to be specific. From a candidate's perspective, campaigns are about three distinct ways to communicate, all of which make sense. One is attacking your opponent, second is talking up yourself and the third is comparing yourself favorably to your opponent.

The first means demonstrating that your opponent should not be elected by questioning his or her credentials, experience and character.

The second means saying why you should be elected by citing your credentials, your experience and your goals if elected.

The third method combines the first two and sums up your own qualifications in a vote­ for‑me statement.

The negative aspect of campaigning arises in connection with how you deliver your message. Radio and television commercials are often the worst offenders, using creepy voice‑overs, distort­ing facts and displaying an attitude of disrespect for the opponent. If all a candidate and his or her spokespeople do is attack the opponent, the result will be dissatisfied voters. This includes both those who support the candidate but dread the next stage of the campaign, and those who are so turned off that they don't bother to vote.

Complaining won't bring about improved campaigns. But an organized effort by voters might make a difference.

After the 1997 Eagleton Forum, New Jersey got a better gubernatorial campaign because the candidates ‑ Christine Whitman and Jim McGreevey ‑ got the message. They took responsibility for their ads and appeared in them wher attacking their opponent. They spoke in "issu( spots" on television, discussing the key problem facing the state, rather than simply blasting thei opponent.

An Eagleton survey done after the electio showed that voters noticed it was a better cary paign than the nasty 1996 Senate race.

It is not too late to generate an organizc effort to get a better Senate campaign this year. would be easy to dust off the 1997 "Suggestions for Better Campaigns" and deliver them to the candidates for action, starting as soon as possible.