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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in The Times, Trenton, NJ, 10/05/05

To Get Real Answers, Ask Real Questions

by Ingrid Reed

In about a month. Election Day will finally arrive. Campaign managers say that this home stretch is when the real campaign begins, which means candidates will spend millions of dollars on 30second TV spots targeting Lm committed voters.
Pardon me if I am skeptical about the power of ads. Sen. Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester have spent millions on TV ads in previous Since they both won their races, their campaign managers can claim that the ads worked. But in the 2000 Senate race, Corzine nipped then-Rep. Bob Franks by just three percentage points after outspending him by 10 to 1. Forrester scored a modest win in this year's Republican primary for governor by mounting the only sustained TV ad campaign of the seven candidates originally in the race.
Voters say that they don't like ads, don't trust ads, don't watch ads and don't know what to believe when the candidates make claims, especially those that feature grainy photos of the opponent, a litany of what the opponent has done wrong, recited by an anonymous creepy voice. And since candidates are often not even seen in ads, voters have little chance to get to know them.
Unfortunately, even the recent debate in September caused voters frustration, especially when some were interested enough to find out when the debate was broadcast, overcome the short notice, and ignore competition from a big baseball game.
These voters, however, complained about the debate rules limiting candidates' responses to one minute and rebuttals to just 30 seconds. They found this choppy and confusing. They wanted the candidates to be allowed to at least finish their sentences. They didn't like questions that could be answered with a "yes" or a "no."
Fortunately at least one more debate and several joint appearances are coming up, so there is a possibility of some variety in format. Watch for the League of Women Voters, WABC debate at the College of New Jersey, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m.
Is there an alternative to the quick comment and 30-second ad?
Maybe it is time for the essay question in the debates and even for instant grading of the answers, Olympic style, based on the clarity of thought and the quality of the arguments. Candidates should be encouraged to make a five-minute presentation in response to the question, including examples, charts or diagrams if they choose to use them. Anyone who wants to be governor should be able to analyze, communicate and persuade in both public and private settings. Why not test out this capacity in the campaign?
Based on what I have heard voters say they want to learn from the candidates, here are some suggestions for essay questions. Make up your own if you don't like the following:
• Describe what you think is wrong with funding local government and K-12 education mainly through property taxps, and specifically what you would do about it.
• Explain the state's budget so that citizens can understand what expenditures the governor and the Legislature control and can change. Since a deficit is projected for the next N car and beyond, cite three budget items that amount to more than $200 million apiece and explain how you would reduce them.
• New Jersey is being over-run with development and must save open space while redeveloping older cities and towns. How would you provide state leadership for these efforts, and how xould you measure their success?
• What have vou learned from the responses wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita that will guide you to improve New Jersey’s preparedness for emergencies?
If there is skepticism about this alternative for a debate format, why not revive the issue spot from the 1997 gubernatorial campaign? When Gov. Christie Whitman and Mayor James McGreevey ran that year. they agreed to answer questions on television about key issues in the campaign in five-minute segments. They simpli, faced the camera and explained what they planned to do and voters got to know them .ind their thinking. Carried on New Jersey Network and several small stations in the Philadelphia area, these issue spots were a first - and at this point a last - for New Jersey, but they served as a model for other states. What is needed are willing candidates, TV stations ,and viewers.
If you are muttering that the candidates this year would never do it and that the stations don't trust their viewers to pay attention, remind yourself of two old sayings: "Variety is the spice of life" and "You never know unless you try it." Since fewer registered voters turned out for each of the last three gubernatorial elections, and in 2001 less than 50 percent went to the polls, we clearly need to try something new, since we aren't engaging the voters by using the old ways.