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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in The Star-Ledger 11/05/05

Believe It or Not, Better Campaigns are Possible

by Ingrid Reed

         There is agreement in New Jersey that the just-completed gubernatorial campaign was the worst in recent history. Voters in every survey said they were disgusted and turned off But we should remember there once was an agreement that New Jersey could have better campaigns if:
  • Candidates appeared and spoke in ads in which opponents were mentioned - "say it yourself" was the advice to candidates.
  • Candidates avoided distorting the images, and the voices of their opponents in ads.
  • Debates were more frequent, welladvertised, conveniently scheduled and had a fonnat that encouraged discussion among the candidates.
  • News media coverage presented more information about the candidates, the issues and the accuracy of the ads.
  • All three major players in campaigns -the candidates, the media and the public -took responsibility for better earnpaigns.
    In the wake of the 2005 campaign, the response to this list is probably "you must be kidding." It is hard to believe that 25 leaders in the state's civic, political and academic worlds achieved the above consensus after a two-hour discussion before 200 people.
   All this happened in February 1997, after the incredibly nasty 1996 race for the U.S. Senate seat between Reps. Robert Torricelli and Dick Zimmer. Gov. Christie Whitman called for the forum to address the tone of campaigning in the state, and the Eagleton Institute organized the effort.
   In 2005, it is even harder to believe that list of proposals for better campaigns actually resulted in a better campaign, but it did. After the 1997 gubernatorial election, an Eagleton poll showed that 77 percent of voters felt the tone was more positive and issue-oriented than the previous 1996 race.
   Why did change occur? A lot of credit has to go the candidates -Whitman, Jim McGreevey, then a state senator, and Murray Sabrin, a Ramapo professor running as the Libertarian Party nominee. They did "say it themselves" when they criticized their opponents. They looked in the camera and made their case without creepy music and gray, disturbed faces. However, in addition, several organized efforts pushed for change.
   Some Leadership New Jersey alumni, a group of state leaders, organized an issue index to monitor how the candidates addressed the key issues in their ads, releasing a report every two weeks on what the candidates did. The group found that the candidates kept to the issues and that only about 30 percent of the ads were solely negative, speaking only against opponents. Another third of the ads advocated the candidates, and the remaining were contrast ads that mentioned the opponent's stand and compared it with the candidate's position. What a contrast with 2005.
   A collaboration of corporate, civic and political leaders, including former Govs. Tom Kean and Brendan Byrne, endorsed free time for the candidates to appear in issue spots. The candidates prepared one minute segments on public television 'in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in which they addressed questions that concerned the voters, as reported in Polls.
   What did not work better in 1997 were debates. The candidates agreed to three, one more than the two required by the public funding law. The format did not provide a lively discussion and was far from the "interactive debate" specified in the law They were poorly advertised and not conveniently scheduled.
   This was the same in 2005. New Jersey voters will not get the debates they deserve until there is a publicly initiated debate commission. This civic group could negotiate with the candidates and their staffs similar to the way the nonprofit presidential debate commission works. It could devise the format and work with television stations and newspapers to collaborate in presenting debates. We have to end the practice of the candidates deciding on debates only as a campaign strategy and the organizers considering sponsorship as a trophy. Instead, a new kind of cooperation in presenting and publicizing debates must be achieved.
   New Jersey can't afford not to have better campaigns. We are the laughingstock of the nation - even though most states don't do much better than we do. We can't afford business leaders lacking confidence in locating here because we have a reputation for flawed governance and even more flawed carnpaigns.
   We cant afford to have citizens as disengaged and distrustful of government leaders and the candidates who aspire to lead them as they are after this campaign. Better campaigns are not only the responsibility of the candidates. The public must organize, expect more and hold political leaders accountable rather than simply complaining. Let's take some inspiration -from 1997 and do even better.