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Campaign Format Prevents Proper Assessment of Issues

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

It's a real pity that this year's presidential race has flopped so badly. A horse race is fine entertainment for those of us who follow politics and government all year round every year. The rest of the country, however, has little reason to learn about or discuss the nation's problems, and a close election is about the only thing that can tempt people from their apathy. This election, by contrast to others, has failed to awaken the electorate from its slumber.

One casualty of this year's campaign boredom has been the Clinton ethics issue. Bob Dole belatedly raised (or rather, mentioned) the issue in his second debate with Clinton. Instead of responding to the charges, or even acknowledging them, the president floated serenely above the issue. He looked presidential, according to most observers, and Dole looked mean.

Given the limited number of issues that could be discussed during the election as a whole, and given the format of the debate (where Dole had to ignore audience queries in order to attack the president), I sympathize with those who wanted to let Clinton off the hook. Indeed, I believe the charges silly, because it seems to me that once they knew all the facts about the Riady contributions and the FBI files, people would not find the evidence very damning as far as the president's conduct is concerned.

It bothers me, however, that candidates who raise charges about other candidates' conduct tend to get hammered even more than the person whose conduct is in question. In the 1984 debates, Democratic challenger Walter Mondale raised all sorts of questions about President Ronald Reagan's policies over the previous few years. While most audience members felt Mondale had won on substance, real-time "hot buttons" analysis of television audience emotions during the debate revealed the opposite result. When Mondale rebutted Reagan, viewers felt negatively about him.

A similar study of the second Dole-Clinton debate revealed a similar result: When Dole attacked, viewers poured out their negative feelings - on Dole. Sure enough, now people think Dole is meaner than ever. So the lesson is, have the candidate stick to upbeat (if irrelevant) platitudes, and have your surrogates muck around with charges and counter-charges.

One might think that maybe people react rationally to negative charges. Maybe they don't agree with Dole's charges and wish he'd never brought them up. Depressing though it may seem, the evidence tells against the idea. The Mondale-Reagan debate study, for example, showed that people had negative feelings toward Mondale's charges only when the camera was fixed on his face; when the camera showed Reagan's face, Reagan's rating fell.

The average watcher, then, behaves very poorly: He or she just transfers all negative feelings about the attacks onto the person on screen at any given moment. If Jim Lehrer had been on screen during Dole's attacks, maybe Dole wouldn't have suffered so much from his own attacks.

If candidates can't discuss their opponents' records for fear of viewer backlash, what can they say? They have to rely on platitudes. The debates were full of those. Clinton brought up a host of inconsequential or self-enacting programs to serve this bland purpose. Dole kept harping on his tax cut plan. The candidates rarely clashed on ideas.

Of course, there is one way for a candidate to go on the offensive without dropping in the polls: the negative attack ad. Negative ads work, however, not by contrasting the candidate's ideas and thus winning support of the opponent's erstwhile followers. Negative ads work because they drive people away from the polls; the victim of the ad suffers more than the attacker, but both suffer because of increased cynicism and negativity.

No matter what the polls say, people deserve to see the candidates clash on ideas. Only then can people contrast the candidates' ideas and decide what vision is right for them. Unfortunately, the current format of campaigns and debates does not facilitate this contrast. It may even impede it.

I believe we need to think hard about how to juice up our presidential campaigns. The point is not to increase the amount of mudslinging. The point is to let people see the difference between the candidates. Without that contrast, every election becomes boring and cynical.

Copyright 19,95, The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was published on Tuesday.
Volume 116, Number 54.
This story appeared on page 4.

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