Negative Ads Aren't Debate

Despite the public's demand for a different type of politics, it seems candidates just can't break old habits.

Campaigns for the midterm elections are awash in "soft money" (the kind to be banned after the election), and most of it appears to go into buying negative, often vicious, television advertising.

Nearly $1 billion in campaign advertising could be spent by Nov. 5 by candidates, their parties, and special interest groups, according to one reliable estimate. Many of the negative ads twist facts, leaving voters to ask, "Whom should I believe?" And many candidates admit they spend more time raising money than actually campaigning.

For all the mudslinging and dollar tossing, though, there are some glimmers of hope:

In California, Gov. Gray Davis (D) has pulled all his television commercials attacking his challenger, Bill Simon Jr. (R), off the air. He may have discovered how such ads only reinforce negative opinions of both candidates. Other candidates should be more than a little worried about all this consultant-advised negativism.

A stronger curative than that would be to hold more public debates, especially the old-fashioned kind with no moderator and no journalists with "gotcha" questions. They could be held in malls, schools, community centers, and the like – not TV studios.

Indeed, evidence of efforts to switch back to more personal appeals comes from Yale University political scientist Donald Green, whose recent study reveals a trend in campaigns to such grass-roots work as knocking on doors and using more volunteers.

Voters, too, now have more options to stay informed, and away from the clutter of ads. They can visit a candidate's website, for example, or do independent research on issues.

Candidates who appeal to voters' better instincts, instead of trying to create disgust at opponents, might just find a receptive audience.

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