Making Clean Campaign Ads a Reality
by Senator John Marty
November 7, 2003

Last year, Minnesotans were subjected to some truly nasty mudslinging in campaign advertisements. Attack ads were run by the Democratic and Republican parties, the campaigns, and outside interest groups. The attacks were particularly noteworthy in two hotly contested congressional campaigns, where the candidates were portrayed as dishonest, greedy, incompetent -- practically everything short of being child molesters.

If you believed even half of the attacks on the candidates, you wouldn't vote for any of them. Well before the campaign ended most Minnesotans were thoroughly disgusted. Our democracy is too important to surrender it to campaign consultants who have their own "golden rule" -- "Do it unto your opponent before (s)he does it unto you."

Nationally, 86% of voters believe unfair attack campaigning is unethical, and 81% believe attack-oriented campaigning is undermining and damaging our democracy.

So why do campaigns use these smear tactics? Because they work. Campaign consultants know carefully-crafted negative attacks discredit the opposition. To prevent voter backlash, consultants distance their own candidate from the attack.

Next year, Minnesotans will be bombarded with another round of this perverse expression of democracy, unless we launch an effort to clean up the process now. It is not an easy problem to address. Opposing attack ads does not mean opposing all criticism in political campaigns. It is appropriate for candidates to compare and contrast their visions, positions, and records with those of their opponents. Hard-hitting criticism is not necessarily unfair.

The first amendment appropriately gives wide latitude to candidates and campaigns to express their point of view. You could not simply outlaw negative attacks. Consequently, any solution must be voluntary and must distinguish between appropriate criticism and inappropriate attacks.

There have been efforts in several states to establish "Clean Campaign Codes" to fix the problem. One of the best efforts was organized in Minnesota back in 1996. It included a well-thought out compact and a strong effort to get candidates to comply. Although few, if any, statewide campaigns agreed to participate, the initiative had good success in legislative and local races.

As promising as past efforts have been, many major candidates ignored them. Campaign consultants claim participation in a compact would be "unilateral disarmament" when there is no enforcement, and thus no incentive to participate.

To succeed, a clean campaign compact needs: 1) a process to determine violations and an effective enforcement mechanism when they occur, and 2) standards that are objective enough to be ruled on in a quick, unbiased manner.

Building on past efforts and learning from their experience, Minnesota can develop a Clean Campaign Compact that gives campaigns an incentive to clean up their ads. The voluntary nature of this Compact need not make it ineffective.

Take a look at the model of the Minnesota News Council, a non-profit, non-partisan entity that holds news media accountable for the fairness of their reporting. The News Council has no ability to impose any legal sanctions, yet it has great authority because the news media recognize the stigma attached to an adverse council ruling.

Start with a Clean Campaign Council to enforce the Compact. Establish a simple, objective standard so the council can make quick determinations whether campaign ads comply. Encourage the news media to spotlight ads that fail the standards and the public to recognize and reject unfair ads. Public rejection of attack ads would force campaigns to stop running the attacks to avoid voter backlash.

Obviously, this system would only work if the news media and the public buy in. But there should be almost universal acceptance of such an effort by a public that recalls how disgraceful the campaign of 2002 was.

The other missing link in past efforts was the lack of an objective standard to distinguish between unacceptable negative attacks and appropriate, if hard-hitting, criticism. The key to making this distinction is the reality that political attacks are more vicious and less truthful if made by a surrogate instead of the candidate. Certainly, some candidates resort to name-calling, distortion, and other unethical tactics, but their personal attacks are tempered by the political necessity of not appearing mean-spirited or unfair. Think back to the negative ads you have seen. The attacks are leveled by an anonymous voice or a surrogate doing the dirty work. The candidate remains above the fray.

To comply with the Compact, attacks on the opposition in paid advertisements would have to be spoken by the candidate. This distinction between attacks made by a candidate from those by a surrogate, is a simple, clear, objective standard. And it works. Candidates don't hesitate to criticize their opponent, but they recognize a line, a level of fairness, that they dare not cross lest they be seen as mudslingers.

Some reporters have analyzed the accuracy of attack ads, producing news reports that draw conclusions such as, an ad is "factually accurate, but misleading." This content analysis can be helpful, but it is very subjective and time consuming, so only a small percentage of ads are ever analyzed. Also, the analysis appears only once, while the destructive ads are repeated frequently.

In contrast, an objective pass/fail test can provide a quick "stamp of approval" for conforming ads, or a "thumbs-down" from voters for ads that don't.

In addition to enforcing the objective advertising standard, the Clean Campaign Council could develop a voluntary pledge for candidates of more subjective standards such as agreeing to participate in debates and not appealing to hatred or prejudice.

Establishing this Clean Campaign Compact is not a simple task. It will require hard work from a core group of interested citizens or a major commitment from a trusted civic group like the League of Women Voters. It will require understanding and support from the news media. And, it will require voters to demand decency from the candidates they support.

This is a case where a grass roots initiative can make a difference. Float the idea of a Clean Campaign Compact with friends and colleagues. Help refine the idea.

Campaigns in 2004 do not have to be as demeaning as those in 2002. Campaigners can and should argue, debate, and contend, but they can do it with dignity. For the future of Minnesota, it is worth the effort.

(for an outline of this "Clean Campaign Compact" click here )

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