Helping Unscramble Campaign Rhetoric
BOSTON — VOTERS are getting a little more help than usual sorting fact from fiction in this year's presidential campaign messages. Voter education programs, initiated by nonpartisan interest groups, are springing up nationwide.
Campaign debate score cards, citizen juries, and voters' "self-defense" manuals aim at helping voters sift through the rhetoric and encourage candidates to avoid negative campaigning.
"We feel very strongly that we need to address the important issues and understand what each candidate has to offer," says Susan Hughson, vice president for communications for the League of Women Voters (LWV) of New York State.
This year, the New York league is launching an ambitious program to educate citizens on fair campaign practices. Called "Campaign Watch '92," it establishes a code of campaign ethics, requests candidates to support issue-oriented campaigning, and conducts forums for voters on standards for fair and informative campaigns. LWV chapters in Oregon and North Carolina are sponsoring similar programs.
Another new initiative is called the "citizen jury." In Pennsylvania, a panel of two independent juries made up of ordinary citizens will interview United States Senate candidates on three issues and write up a report.
The Pennsylvania LWV is sponsoring a program for its US Senate race this fall featuring incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (R) and challenger Lynn Yeakel (D). The jury members are randomly selected to represent a cross-section of the region's population. Each jury has picked three important issues on which to rate the candidates. In Pennsylvania, the two 18-member jury panels will convene in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The juries will then pick the candidate they feel is best suited to address each issue.
"The process is to give the average citizen a voice in the campaign so that the issues that are being addressed are issues that the citizen really cares about. It's also to define the differences between the candidates," says Tam St. Claire, project director for the Pennsylvania citizens jury program. "The average citizen out there does not have the time to go out [and] get educated on these issues. They are just busy getting food on the table."
In Oregon, Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan voter information group, provides a "self-defense" manual to help voters decide on candidates themselves. The guide informs voters about how political campaigns can manipulate voters. It also provides information about incumbent candidates from each state including: candidate biographies, campaign finance information, and performance evaluations from 20 different interest groups.
Other education programs are aimed at young people. Debate America, based in Washington D.C., provides a Citizen's Gameplan for watching this fall's presidential debates. The four-page guide is targeted at secondary school students, teachers, and parents. The idea is for students to use the guide's "score card" and watch the debate with parents or teachers. On a scale of 0 to 10, debate viewers judge the candidates on issues of particular concern to them.
Kate Mattos, project manager for Debate America, says the score card helps viewers understand better what is important and what is not during a debate.
"You would want to be alert for vagueness and generalities. Perhaps a candidate might propose the benefit of a program and not talk about costs.... Or a candidate might make a promise and upon contemplation [you realize that] no one elected official could fulfill," she says. "The score card is a way to get your ideas organized."
Ann Crigler, a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, says citizens as well as journalists are looking for more factual, issue-oriented information. During the 1988 presidential campaign, journalists felt manipulated by staged campaign events, she says.
That's why the idea of campaign "info-tainment" is catching on so well among TV viewers, says Ms. Crigler.
People feel they are learning more about a candidate when they see him interviewed for a long period of time on TV talk shows like Good Morning America, The Arsenio Hall Show, and Donahue, she says. "It's not so pre-digested for them," Ms. Crigler says.
The new emphasis on issue-oriented information is in response to the way the campaign issues were ignored in 1988, Crigler says.
But even now, citizens feel alienated, she says. "I think there is a also feeling of disconnectedness with the electorate and the whole process. Perot was able to get people really interested and involved at the street level.... And that's not true of the other campaigns."