Rutgers Logo Rutgers University
Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in The Times, Trenton, NJ, 11/23/06

Getting Better Campaigns

by Ingrid Reed

The outcome of the election that took place two weeks ago made some voters happy. Others are not. But the consensus seems to be that practically all voters are unhappy with the process that led up to Election Day.

It's strange that once the winner has been declared, evaluating the experience seems to lose its importance. A sad sentiment sets in. It seems that there is nothing that, can be done about the election season that left a satisfied feeling, whether or not our candidates won. Or*is there eternal hope that the next one will be better?

In many surveys, New Jersey voters reported their discontent with the campaigns. Unfortunately, it was similar to the campaigns run in the past four or five years. The electorate expressed its distaste once again for the nasty, disrespectful uncreative nature of the ads, supposedly the worst in the country.

So now what?

What would the voters like instead? They say they want the candidates, to talk to them in the ads. Explain something to them. Tell them who they are and what they want to do.

Voters don't mind if they are told why they shouldn't vote for the opponent if it is done politely. They don't even mind some negative ads - admitting that these ads get people to pay attention - but, they don't want them to be the only kind they see.

Voters say they like it when the newspapers and the TV people analyze the ads, pointing out what is true and.what is false. According to studies conducted by the Eagleton Institute, where I work, reporters aren't assigned to check ads and post the information in easy-to-read boxes, as they did in the past.

Voters say that television stations should give them a chance to see and hear the candidates as real people. Why not have reporters whom they respect talk to the candidates the way Barbara Walters does to celebrities? They also want the candidates to be willing to debate - seriously - as the presidential candidates do - and act like adults rather than kids in a playground.

This year, New Jersey voters in the fall campaign had only one opportunity to see the Senate candidates on television - and then at the most inconvenient of times, 8 a.m. Sunday - in what was nearly a brawl. New Jerseyans must envy their neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York who saw televised debates at right with the candidates speaking in relatively civil tones.

And then there are the people who refuse to vote because they say that they are disgusted with all campaigns. In this, past election,. only about 45 percent of the registered voters in, New Jersey bothered to go to the polls - in a year that generated extraordinary news and Interest in the issues and the candidates.

So, why don’t voters demand more respect? Why don’t they advocate between elections for the kinds of campaigns they want?

Organizing does work. We have ,good examples in New Jersey, where incredibly successful grass roots efforts resulted in getting the Legislature to address property-tax reform. Another organized push at the local level achieved campaign finance reform, banning “pay to play” contribution to candidates.

A similar coalition effort among civic organizations with a specific, clear agenda could stand a chance of getting better campaigns. Why not demand that candidates agree to debate at least three times if, they want their names on the bal lot? Don't want to debate, don't bother to run. Since the process of running elections is paid for by our taxes, people could have a say in what candidates should do if they are on the ballot.

A civic coalition can keep arecord of ads candidates air and mail, and publicize which candidates present a balanced menu of ads, not just attack ads. Why not ask newspapers to do ad watches by sharing the,responsibility along the lines of providing "pool" coverage, as they now do with the president's activities? Why not urge TV stations to do creative interviews with candidates (and announce if candidates refuse), shifting their news stories from focusing mostly on candidates' strategy and poll results, as Eagleton's 2005 study shows is the case.

Voters as individuals have a hard time making an impact with their complaints, but organizing can cause a shift to a,better balance between what the candidates and their'managers do and what the voters want. After all, campaigns exist to inform the voters about their choices about who should represent them, and do not exist simply for candidates to obtain office by whatever means they choose.

Citizens have been successful in shaping the rules for raising and spending campaign funds. The time has come for the public to play a role in how campaigns are conducted and to do so right now before the, next awful one has a chance to start.