There once was a politician from the Midwest who never attended law school or even graduated from high school, but he claimed to be a lawyer. His main advisor was a well-known alcoholic, his wife was found to have used public monies on frivolous personal items, and he was known to be crude and lacked even basic manners for public office.
Another leader never held a job, survived on the welfare system and was involved in a highly publicized scandal with a prostitute. He was also seen in the company of the worst criminals. He was, admittedly, soft on crime and showed a violent temper when he took on the bankers of his community.
Who would support such people? Well, the first individual was Abraham Lincoln and the second was Jesus.
This brings us to the need for voters to look at the whole picture, which includes human frailty, negative campaigns and push polls.
Recently, a poll funded by county supervisor candidate Teresa Alvarado ran a series of questions testing the “negatives” of Cindy Chavez. This is typical of pollsters in all races, but the push poll often telegraphs the messaging a candidate intends to use.
The problem, of course, is that the questions are asked without context and in a way that is designed to influence, absent any other knowledge.
For example: “Are you much more likely, more likely, less likely or far less likely to vote for a candidate who claims to be a lawyer, but who never even finished high school?” Abe Lincoln would have been screwed.
The question is designed not only to measure how much that information is likely to influence voters, but the intensity a voter would feel about the information.
The pollster assumes this question will elicit a negative response from voters and is gaging whether that message will resonate in relation to other negative messages being tested.
But, when a question is asked in isolation, it does not provide the voter the proper context of a candidate’s background or past decisions they may have made. If the public already knows the candidate, the information may not have the same impact as it would on an unknown candidate.
In addition, when the poll question goes out to the public, it telegraphs potential negative messages that a campaign will use against the opposition. The Chavez camp is now preparing for an assault on its candidate, based on the questions used in the poll.
However, the campaign game has changed.
Negative campaigns used to be most effective when they were used at the last minute; when the candidate who was attacked did not have time to respond. With absentee balloting and votes taking place over a month instead of a single day, a successful negative campaign must be continuous and effective for an entire month.
In fact, the best negative campaign you can run is to say that your opponent is running a negative campaign. But there will be a backlash from voters. The person who fires first often loses in a highly contested race, as the public is suspicious and less tolerant of negative information.
Finally, no candidate for public office is perfect. Even Jesus and Abraham Lincoln can be attacked politically using the opposition research we have on them. Jesus’ support for the poor alone would cost him the Republicans. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)
But in a five-person race, negative campaigning is not an advisable tactic, even though political consultants and pollsters often advise their clients to go negative based on their “research” results. Good candidates know how to say “no” to their advisors, and Teresa Alvarado knows how be a good candidate.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.