Too Much Information

“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 ( 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)

4 Replies to “Too Much Information”

  1. David Randall Post author

    While TerrierSam is right to say that discrediting one’s opponent can be just as effective as promoting one’s own candidacy, it has its limits. The Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign that ended yesterday with Deval Patrick’s election featured negative ads by Patrick’s opponent that backfired, according to some sources. A negative ad that convinces someone not to vote for my opponent can help me if that person doesn’t vote for me–it is one less vote for my opponent, after all. That does not mean it is good for the body politic. If the negative ad helps to drive that voter away from my opponent, away from engagement in political discussion, then I’ve caused a serious harm.

    I’ve always believed the saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” is a cop-out. The game doesn’t exist without players who choose to play by certain rules. Some winning rules may be anti-social. One can say that since the object of any game is to win, one should play by the rules that increase one’s chances of winning. One should not, however, distance oneself from the harm caused by playing per those rules by denying that one chose to use them.

  2. TerriersSam Post author

    All these complaints ignore the fact that these problems and an inherent byproduct of the two party system. As long as there are only two options posed to the electorate, a candidate benefits just as much by taking a vote away from his opponent as he does by adding a vote for himself. Thus, discrediting his opponent is just as effective promoting his own candidacy. The problem with this is that it is easier to discredit someone else than it is to promote one’s self.
    If viable third party candidates were to emerge, it would place much more pressure on candidates to campaign on their own merits and distinguish their candidacy from multiple options.
    The Political Industry is driven by the ‘invisible hand’ just the same as any other market. To criticize candidates for doing what is most effective is to ignore the issues that are responsible for the current state of American politics.

  3. ppham

    Sadly, it is historical fact that most politicians and the governments they work for prefer the masses to be ignorant, uninformed, and even stupid.  In the recent era, though the desires and interests of people have changed drastically (sadly moving onto celebrities, entertainment, and Paris Hilton), there still exists a small group of educated people who want something more: information and real representatives. How can we elect politicians to truly represent us if we are unaware of their political stand on important issues that directly affect our lives? I want to know of their agendas, their opinions, their ideas of morality, their backgrounds, maybe even their favorite rock band if the survey asks of it. In defining who they are, I can better assess their character, vote, and feel part of a real representative democracy.

    I want to vote for a candidate of substance and definition, not a person of vagueness and elusiveness. Candidates’ fear of opposition and mischaracterization should not hold priority over the voters’ right to information. “For the people, by the people.” Our intelligence and our inherent rights demand facts, if not by SmartVote, then by the candidates themselves. By withholding such valuable knowledge, candidates not only insult our intelligence, they also degrade it.

  4. jmd1

    Obviously, before voting, it is helpful to know where a candidate stands on important issues and to have some idea about their past. If the candidates do not put this information up on Vote Smart, the information is more than likely to become public through speeches or interviews anyway. I am not familiar with the layout of Project Vote Smart, but it appears to have several facets. It seems to be a good way to share information about the backgrounds and beliefs of candidates so that the public can make an informed decision on Election Day. However, the way that it “calls people out” who do not participate in the survey does not seem right. For example, on a much smaller scale, in my town, a man running for councilman who had served in that position for many years (reelected 4 times) lost reelection recently, and one of the factors that is said to have hurt him is the harsh reaction by a local magazine regarding a questionaire that he supposedly repeatedly refused to comment on. It presents the candidate to the public in an undeserved negative light, and doesn’t give an accurate representation of the public figure. It makes it seem that they are trying to hide information. Yes, some candidates are reluctant to relay information to the mass media in fear of attack, but honestly, when you put yourself out there as a candidate, you know that you are subject to the public opinion, and there are always people who will try to bring you down. If a candidate wants to appear to have a prestine image, he or she should share their personal facts willingly in order to prevent others from creating an image for him or her.

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