This summer's campaign season is shaping up as a political junkie's dream: high stakes, big money, and everything up for grabs - the presidency, control of Congress, and perhaps the balance on the Supreme Court for a generation.
Even state races are taking on a higher profile this year, because governors and state lawmakers will be the ones to carve up new congressional districts after the 2000 census.
But for the general public, it could add up to one of the most relentlessly negative campaigns in years - which will likely affect voters' attitudes about politics and turnout at the ballot box.
"What makes the race so interesting this year is that the numbers are so close. Everything is in play," says Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "I am assuming the campaign will be more nasty because of that."
Certainly, money won't be an obstacle to getting a negative message out - if that's the direction campaigns decide to take. Both parties are raising funds at a record pace. Campaign-finance experts expect that spending on the presidential and congressional races will top $3 billion this year - about $1 billion more than in the 1996 election.
In the New Jersey Senate race, opponents now anticipate spending about $100,000 a week. In New York, the high-profile Senate race could easily top $100,000 a day. Most of that spending will go into television, and in a tight race, those ads often turn negative.
"There's not a 1 to 1 relationship between the amount of money a candidate raises and the degree of nastiness in the campaign, but there is a high correlation," says Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute here. "And the reason is that it's clear that negative campaigns still by and large work."
Conventional wisdom says the public is turned off by negative ads. But analysts say there's new evidence that this may not be true. Rather, intense advertising - negative or positive - in a race can act as a catalyst to draw more people into the voting booth.
"The effects of negative political campaigns on the electorate are different than what people think they are," says Paul Freedman, a political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "In fact, negative ads may cause people to tune in [to a campaign], and to feel that these hard-fought races are worth tuning into."
Still, many candidates try to win points by portraying their opponent as the negative campaigner in the race. The Bush campaign, for example, keeps a running tally of slams from the Gore camp - "27 attacks in 35 days," according to the most recent count.
Another popular tactic among candidates is to find surrogates to make the negative case for them. A big factor in the fall races could be the surge of advertising coming from parties and interest groups under the rubric "issue advocacy."
Since 1996, political parties and interest groups have become bigger players in the business of negative campaigning. They are financing candidates' negative campaigns, as well as sponsoring their own. "Issue ads" already seen in the presidential race have ranged from environmental groups attacking George W. Bush's record on clean air, to a Texas businessman running negative ads about Sen. John McCain during the primary season.
"There's one thing we know about party independent ads ... and the sham issue advocacy campaigns that go on in the last 60 days of a political campaign: They tend far more than candidate ads to be negative attacks on adversaries," says Mr. Ornstein.
A new analysis of television advertising in the 1998 congressional elections shows that candidates themselves accounted for most of their ads. "We found few races with more than 1,000 total ads where the candidates were responsible for less than half of the ads," according to "Buying Time," a report released last week by the New York-based Brennan Center.
But interest groups and parties are taking on a larger role. So-called "issue advocacy" ads escape the contribution limits, source restrictions, and disclosure requirements that govern candidate spending. And they are far more likely to go on the attack: While 21 percent of candidate ads attack a rival, 60 percent of party ads are negative in tone.
"Groups and parties have flocked to create ads extolling the virtues of the candidates they like or, more likely, excoriating the candidates they do not.... This has ... blown a huge hole in the nation's campaign finance laws," the report concludes.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society