Do campaigns even matter anymore

Last Friday, the Graduate Program in Political Campaigning at the University of Florida convened a workshop that brought together two groups that seldom communicate with each other: working political consultants and academics who study elections. About a dozen professors made presentations on major facets of campaigning. After each scholarly exposition, a panel of a dozen political consultants commented.

Last Friday, the Graduate Program in Political Campaigning at the University of Florida convened a workshop that brought together two groups that seldom communicate with each other: working political consultants and academics who study elections.

About a dozen professors made presentations on major facets of campaigning. After each scholarly exposition, a panel of a dozen political consultants commented.

The opening round of presentations asked some of the day’s most provocative questions: “Do campaigns really matter?” “Are voters competent?”

Professors Thomas Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Michael Martinez of the University of Florida and Thomas Patterson of Harvard University covered decades of scholarship about campaigning, describing how academicians’ notions have evolved from a “minimum-effects model” to more robust notions about the efficacy of candidates and consultants.

But doubts about campaign effects persist. Several math models generated by academics a month before the last election came startlingly close to predicting the size of Bush’s victory without taking into account any data from the final 30 days of campaigning.

But that doesn’t mean October was inconsequential. As Martinez pointed out, even the minimum-effects crowd wouldn’t have recommended that Bush take the last month of the campaign off.

Responding consultants concurred on most points. Although most scholarly research has focused on presidential contests, the academicians and consultants agreed that subpresidential campaigns and primary elections might better reveal the effects of candidate strategies and tactics. Holbrook speculated that presidential campaigns might actually be least likely to reveal effects. Patterson pointed to multicandidate primaries as exceptionally challenging for both voters and candidates.

Both sides also agreed that distinctions must be made between the competence of the electorate and individual voters. While the larger electorate may not always exhibit a high level of sophistication, that doesn’t mean voters are incompetent. As Democratic media consultant Rich Davis observed, voters are busy and sometimes don’t have enough time to sort through all the media and messages sent their way. But that hardly means they are incompetent.

Professor Lynda Lee Kaid, a political advertising expert, speculated that today’s abundance of specialized media channels may ultimately make TV less influential in campaigns. As voters increasingly can selectively choose to expose themselves only to messages that agree with their pre-existing beliefs, it will be harder to use TV as a means of persuasion that could change their minds. Conservative voters who stay tuned to the Fox News Channel, for example, are less likely to stumble across a non-conservative message that might alter their point of view.

The closing session sparked some fireworks when consultants reacted sharply to charges that they are manipulative and deceive the public. Paul Herrnson of the University of Maryland and Sam Garrett of American University unveiled the results of a national survey of party officials, candidates and consultants on ethical issues. The study provided ammunition for consultants and their critics alike.

In response to one query, fewer than one in 10 consultants reported that they “very often” participate in an “unethical” campaign. But when candidates and consultants were asked about attacking an opponent by using “true statements out of context,” most consultants described that as merely “questionable” while most candidates described it as “clearly unethical.”

Consultants in attendance seemed particularly surprised by survey results showing that party officials say they consider consultant ethics more important than experience or win-loss records when hiring consultants for campaigns. Wayne Johnson, newly installed president of the American Association of Political Consultants, said that few ethics charges leveled at consultants can ever be substantiated.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.