By Former NH House Speaker Marshall Cobleigh
The words of Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential campaign were hauntingly prophetic. Stevenson said then that "hired guns are trying to sell their candidate in precisely the way they sell soup, toothpaste, hair tonic, or bubble gum. The presidential campaign isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."
Today we see candidates spending millions of dollars to determine what to say, how to say it, and even what to wear while saying it. Their stand on issues (in the rare instances when they talk about real issues) is determined by polling results and focus groups, conducted often by the same polling gurus who skew our choice of deodorants. Where is the candidate who will tell the voters what he or she really believes?
Today other than in occasional sound bites the media doesn't tell the voters what the candidates said, they simply report the latest poll results.
Todays media focuses on controversy, conflict and horse race type polling results, not on where the candidates stand on the issues. Anyone who passed statistics 101 knows that there are many ways to deliberately skew polling results. The only fact you know about polling is that the more polls you do, the richer the pollsters get rich.
The other result of all this dependancy on polling is the de facto disenfranchisement of the voting public by the media. The real message of poll results is don't waste your vote on a losing candidate, cast your vote for the one we tell you will win.
Polling leads to partisanship. The goal is winning not solving problems.
Even legitimate polling has nothing whatsoever to do with who would be an effective President or who is best capable to being a strong war time leader. Polling and focus groups tell us nothing at all about a candidate's judgement in time of crisis. A poll if accurate simply reflects today's opinion. It sheds no light at all on how to solve tommorrow's problems. Polling has some value in dealing with simplistic decisions. Polling is a horrible way to decide complex issues that a President faces on a daily basis.
Bob Shrum, Bill Clinton's top campaign advisor tells us in his book "No Excuses" that "polling proposals that scored 70 to 80 per cent became Clinton's programs. Not surprising this process had a built in bias toward the inoffensive, modest, and symbolic. A stategy of presidental survival. I had hoped Clinton's 2nd innaugural speach would provide a framework of conviction and vision for a 2nd term. It ought to speak to the next 4 years and to history, not just to the next round of polls."
The trend in using polls for determining policy positions is rapidly accelerating. George HW Bush, according to the Wall Street Journal "in his first two years spent $216,000 on polls. Bull Clinton in his first year alone spent $1,986,410. on policy polls.
Here in New Hampshire we have seen Governor's Jeanne Shaheen and John Lynch both of whom are very risk adverse and rarely ever take a stand on any issue that is not approved by their pollsters. Thats why the education constitutional problem has not been solved in the past decade. That is why we constantly hear from both of them about their plans to deal with sexual predators. Do you know of anybody who supports sexual predators? Shaheen and Lynch's goal is to be popular and get reelected, not to solve the major problems facing New Hampshire.
The other way that today's presidential campaigns are like deodorant sales campaigns is the increased reliance by most campaigns on gearing their appearances toward television visibilities rather than in depth voter scrutiny. We see increasingly stops at restaurants especially when they are not busy rather than spending the candidates time at town meetings and house parties. The goal is simply to get on the evening television news rather than an in depth discussion of issues.
Richard Nixon's top aide Bob Halderman came from the soap selling J Walter Thompson advertising agency and according to Jules Witcover decided "That personal campaigning was senseless, not to mention hazardous....The campaign was set up to feature a carefully prepared speach to a pro-Nixon crowd at an easily accessable airport geared to the timetable of network television."
The great majority of todays candidates are far more interested in attending carefully controlled media events rather than subjecting themselves to local voter scrutiny on the issues facing America.
Like the amount of money spent on deodorant campaigns the money spent on television advertising today by presidential candidates is atrocious. Mitt Romney started running commercials on WMUR TV way back in February 2007. He has out spent Mike Huckabee by over twenty to one in Iowa. All of the major campaigns are inudating voters with tv commercials.
Garry Wills wrote in his review of Dick Morris's book "that Bill Clinton's campaign was corrupted by the need to keep up the huge cash flow his consultant Dick Morris demanded for television advertising. The money raised from foreign sources was a measure of the desperate search for all possible income." Hillary Clinton has already had to return over $800.000. in later discovered illegal contributions.
While retail politicking as done in New Hampshire and Iowa is still an effective was of narrowing the field and far preferable to campaigns staged only at airports in different time zones to hit all of the various media deadlines. It is being perverted by advertising and campaign consultants whose goal too often is the reward of untold ,commission income from polling, focus groups and television advertising.
It may be an OK way to select a deodorant, but its a poor way to select the leader of the free world. It does not lead to problem solving ability. It does lead to continuing partisan bickering and polarization at a time when we badly need consensus.