“In the information age, anything you say can and will be used against you.” Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, quoted in The Wall Street Journal.
Project Vote Smart, a bipartisan non-profit organization, compiles and maintains a library of information about political candidates, organizing it into five categories: biographical information, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and interest group ratings. It gathers data from many sources, including a detailed survey it sends to political candidates. Anyone can access the information library via the Internet (www.vote-smart.org) or by calling a toll-free number (1-888-868-3762). In 1996, 72% of the candidates Project Vote Smart approached filled out its voluntary survey of their political positions. This year only 48% of the candidates competed to the survey. Why? According to a Wall Street Journal article, “[m]any are afraid their opponents will use the information against them in attack ads.”
Consider that for a moment: candidates do not want to reveal their political positions because they are afraid they might be used against them. Isn’t one purpose of a political campaign to learn where a candidate stands?
Save the “don’t be naive” comments. I know the response to my rhetorical question. Candidates are reluctant to describe their positions because they fear opponents will use the information against them in ways that mischaracterize their positions. The Project Vote Smart survey, which required “yes” or “no” answers to complex questions, bears some of the blame for the declining response rate. Project Vote Smart has modified the survey to allow respondents to skip up to 30% of the questions, and to answer questions in their own words.
There are many consequences of candidates refusing to define their positions. One is that all information about the candidate becomes a product, rolled out for mass consumption only after marketing consultants have buffed it to a high gloss. Another is that it removes the burden of expecting candidates to actually have positions. Candidates become empty vessels into which positions are poured only after they have been carefully calibrated through focus groups and issue polls. A third is that it lowers our expectations about political discourse while at the same time insulting our intelligence. Candidates use misleading or incomplete information in attack ads because they expect that voters will not seek out more complete information. They also count on voters’ short attention spans and short memory. Voters respond by engaging with issues only as disposable 30-second sound bites. Fear of information feeds a vicious cycle that turns politics into packaging and voters into cynics.
Source: Peter Grant, Politicians Grow Wary of Survey as Internet Spreads Attack Ads, The Wall Street Journal, 25-Oct-06 Page B1 (Subscription required)