Campaign Up In Flames 2
Campaign Up In Flames:
Negative Advertising Backfires and Damages a Young Democrat
Maggie Jones Patterson
Associate Professor of Journalism
Pittsburgh, PA 15282
[log in to unmask]
Kristin R. Veatch
Submitted to the Advertising Division, Association for Education in Journalism
and Mass Communications, for presentation at 1997 national convention in
Campaign Up In Flames:
Negative Advertising Backfires and Damages a Young Democrat
Dan Cohen, Pittsburgh City Councilman, challenged 15-year-incumbent Congressman
Bill Coyne in the spring 1996 Democratic primary election. After successfully
fund-raising with a positive campaign based on economic development and a pledge
to be a more aggressive voice for the district, Cohen hired a crew of Washington
consultants who advised him to toss out his positive themes and instead attack
the Congressman in a blistering series of television, radio, and direct mail
advertisements. The negative campaign backfired, Cohen's support dwindled, and
his own campaign treasurer publicly denounced him. The campaign serves as a
case study here to examine how the rise of consultants and the diminishment of
political parties have affected political advertising and whether the democratic
process has been enhanced or hindered.
Campaign Up In Flames:
Negative Advertising Backfires and Damages a Young Democrat
The 30-second video tape had just finished rolling when the shouting
erupted. It was loud enough to startle Kathy Fitzgerald who was asleep after
putting the children to bed two floor above it. Kathy's husband Rich, Dan
Cohen, and several members of the Dan Cohen for Congress campaign had gathered
around a television in the basement of the Fitzgeralds' large Pittsburgh home to
watch one of the commercials that a national media consultant had produced for
the spring 1996 primary election, just weeks away. It would air in three days.
"You should be ashamed," Fitzgerald (personal communication, 1996, Nov. 16)
recalls bellowing at Cohen and his campaign manager Bill Peduto that night,
accusing them of racism. He quit as campaign treasurer and communications
director on the spot.
Others in the room were miffed at Fitzgerald. Cohen, who was challenging
15-year incumbent Bill Coyne for the right to represent Pennsylvania's 14th
Congressional District, saw the ad as simply "anti-crime" (personal
communication, 1997, Jan. 16). The fast-paced spot opens with close ups of
marijuana and rocks of crack in white hands, a SWAT team swarming into a little
bungalow, and then a police car moving down a wide, tree-lined street. In the
commercial, Cohen says: "We're fighting for crime here everyday, but how can we
win when Congressmen like Bill Coyne vote to lower sentences for crack dealers.
. . ?" (Robinson, 1996, March 29)
"In no one's eye is that ad racist," Cohen still maintains indignantly. The
only black person in the ad is a police officer, and the scenes are more
suburban than inner city. Cohen, a liberal, protests that he's always defended
racial equality, but he realizes this and other ads stirred tremendous
controversy. The news media, which had paid scant attention to Cohen's positive
campaign tactics, began lambasting him once the negative ads began.
After three weeks of fiery television ads, Cohen's nationally produced
series of direct mail pieces began arriving in constituents' mailboxes during
the week before the election. On the back, they read: "Paid for by Cohen for
Congress, Rich Fitzgerald, Treasurer." No longer simply alienated from the
candidate he had supported, the now furious Fitzgerald called the local news
media just three days before the election, publicly denounced Cohen's tactics,
and threw his support to Cohen's opponent, incumbent Congressman Bill Coyne
(O'Toole, 1996, April 21).
Even before then, Dan Cohen's once-promising campaign was going up in
flames. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board called it "the political
equivalent of a mad scientist's experiment" (Deibler, 1996, April 24). On
Tuesday, April 23, 1996, he lost to Bill Coyne by more than a two-to-one margin.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Cohen's political friends and foes agree on
just two things: Cohen has the makings of a rising political star and his
advertising campaign for Congress last spring was a disaster for his career.
After that, the pundits part company. What last year's Democratic primary
campaign means for this young Democrat's political future and what it says about
political campaigning depend on whom consult.
Dan Cohen himself says he lost for three reasons: Pittsburgh's affection
for Congressman Coyne, the negative advertising, and a 28 percent turnout on
election day, the lowest in 40 years. Low turnouts generally favor incumbents,
but they don't explain a walloping of 66 percent to 34 percent (47,334 to
Cohen is young at 35, with clean-cut good looks, dark hair and a ready
smile; he went to Yale as an undergraduate, Stanford law school, and then to
work for one of Pittsburgh's top law firms before running for Council in 1989.
Local press accounts consistently describe him as bright, amiable and
articulateDadjectives rarely uttered in the same breath with Pittsburgh City
Council, which is better known for its vociferous, circus-like debates. Many in
Cohen's liberal Council district supported his congressional bid, not because
they disliked Coyne, but because they found Cohen's campaign attractive. They
liked his can-do spirit, his engaging sincerity, his good record of constituent
service and liberal voting record on Council.
Kathryn Hens-Greco, Pittsburgh attorney, says (personal communication,
1997, Jan. 4) she was drawn to Cohen's campaign in reaction to Republican U.S.
Sen. Rick Santorum's victory in the 1994 senatorial race over Democrat Harris
Wofford. "I wanted a liberal voice in Washington who would garner the headlines
with as much tenacity as Rick Santorum did," she said. Bill Coyne, she thought,
was a "loyal, liberal representative but not an aggressive one or one who took
an outward stand on liberal issues."
Now Cohen's damaged political career rests with District 8 voters who will
either boot him out of Council Chambers or nominate him for a third term on May
20. His mistakes of last year are reprised this spring as his former ally, Rich
Fitzgerald, is now challenging him for his Council seat. Pessimists say Cohen
has burned too many bridges over Pittsburgh's backwater politics. Optimists
contend Cohen has learned an important lesson.
But the story of Cohen's campaign is more than the tale of an up-and-coming
politician setting himself afire with his own ambition. What happened to Cohen
provides a case study in how modern political advertising works, as well as why
this campaign backfired. It demonstrates how far slick and savvy consultants
have moved into what was once the domain of local party regulars. They create a
dog-eat-dog, all out fight to win, even in primaries, where strong parties once
guarded against such civil wars, kept back stabbing off the television screens,
and reserved it for the inner sanctum of their smoke-filled rooms.
The party system in Pittsburgh, like the party system nationally, is weak
but not dead. At one time, the Democratic Party's endorsement hereDlike those
in many older citiesD would have blocked a Cohen from running for Congress and
prevented the intra-party fight that hurt the young upstart much more than it
damaged the incumbent.
Most local critics suggest Cohen had some chance to winDat first (Casey,
1997; Delano, 1997; Owen, 1997; Stroh, 1997). Congressman Coyne's support had
slipped in recent years, since Pittsburgh's population drop led to redistricting
in 1992 and the district spread beyond city limits to incorporate more
"I ran because I thought I could do a better job than Congressman Coyne,"
Cohen (1997) said. He raised funds readily, working with a local team of
progressive and committed Pittsburghers who focused their efforts around
positive issues: new initiatives for economic development, creative plans to
improve the environment, as well as the promise to represent the district with
a "strong voice" rather than a "passive vote."
And initially, early Cohen campaign workers say, he was running a positive,
issues-oriented campaign. In a seven-point plan for economic development, Cohen
promised to bring more federal funds to the area, attract businesses to the
region, foster local entrepreneurism, develop tourism, coordinate the region's
marketing efforts, improve labor-management relations, and develop worker
Cohen's plans attracted Fitzgerald, 37, an engineer who has run his own
sales business for 14 years. He signed on early as campaign treasurer. "I've
been very frustrated at our city's lack of economic developmentDjobs. We lose a
lot young people when they get out of school," says Fitzgerald (1996), whose
brothers and his cousins have left the region.
By fall 1995, Cohen's message was spreading and donations were pouring in
at a pace that eventually led to a $450,000 cache, enough to indicate that this
young challenger might have a chance (Fitzgerald, 1996). Cohen took the money
and did what every young politico feels obliged to do (Dunham, personal
communication, Feb. 5, 1996). He went to the bazaar where the biggest political
consultants pedal their adviceDWashington, D.C.D and hired a team of firms: The
Sinsheimer Group, an oppositional research firm that began its work in the fall
of 1995; a pollster, Lauer, Lalley, Victoria Inc.; a media consultant,
MacWilliams Cosgrove Snider Smith Robinson (MCSSR); and a direct mail
"What I found is that the role of the consultant has seeped down into the
lower level of politicsDcampaigns for the state house, even for city councils,"
said Jon Delano (personal communication, 1997, Jan. 26), who teaches the
Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management.
A consultant has become a necessity to run a professional, successful
campaign at all levels of government, according to the American Association of
Political Consultants (1996), who have a financial interest in such self
promotion. Although they have many critics, political consultants do provide
much needed services for today's aspiring politicians. "Political consultants
offer 'general' services, at a strategic and campaign management level, and
'specialist' services, including such diverse items as public opinion survey
research, television and radio production and timebuying, print production and
space purchase, telemarketing, direct mail, fund-raising, media relations,
computer use, and a host of additional forms of expertise" (American Association
of Political Consultants, 1996, p. 2). Television has made politics a faster,
costlier business. Although broadcasters offer their best rates to political
candidates, these media are expensive and require specialists whose skills go
far beyond the abilities of most grassroots volunteers. "Technology created the
present political consulting industryDwith over 3,000 firms and 7,000 individual
professionals" (Faucheux, 1996, p. 1).
On the other hand, campaign volunteers have a sense of the local political
landscape that out-of-town consultants lack, points out consultant Dennis Casey
(personal communication, 1997, Jan. 26), who thinks the gap between the
Washington consultants and the Pittsburgh voters was a crucial fault in Cohen's
failed campaign strategy.
Cohen's consultants began with opposition research in fall 1995
(Sinsheimer, 1995), followed by a survey of 402 likely Democratic voters in the
district in January 1996 (Lauer et al., 1996). The survey found Bill Coyne's
personal ratings high (87 percent recognition and 57 percent positive feelings).
But Coyne's job rating (just 49 percent positive) was relatively weak. Dan
Cohen's chief problems were relatively low recognition (69 percent) and his
association with City Council, which received overwhelming negatives from the
voters, prompting his advisers to recommend Cohen steer clear of running on his
Cohen's ads were accurate and based on Bill Coyne's own voting record,
according to Will Robinson (personal communication, 1997, March 18), media
consultant who produced Cohen's TV spots for MCSSR. Looking at them a year
after the controversy, we had to admit they did not generate the heat that
Cohen's critics saw in them in the context of the negative campaign. They
attack Bill Coyne's record but not the person. The direct mail pieces, on the
other hand, definitely do.
Nonetheless, Cohen took a hard hit for the TV spots, Robinson (1997)
concedes, and he cites two reasons. First, this was a primary, not general,
election. Democrats did not take well to this attack on one of their own.
Robinson, who worked as deputy political director of the Dukakis campaign and
was a key player in Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's 1989 victory, said the
consultants underestimated Coyne's popularity and the strength of the local
Democratic organization. Second, Cohen appeared in his own ads, delivering much
of the negative message while looking straight into the camera. The challenger
is less vulnerable if he stays off camera or has someone else deliver his punch.
Ironically but not surprisingly, Cohen's poll (Lauer et al., 1996) found
strong support among the voters for the issues on which he had launched his
campaign, i.e. the need for jobs and economic development in Western
Pennsylvania and for a stronger liberal voice against the Republican-led
Congress. Voters were overwhelmingly concerned about jobs and economic
development. And, the survey found, the district's Democrats reacted strongly
against the conservative sway in Congress.
Nonetheless, in an interpretation that takes a leap of faith to follow, the
consultants (Lauer et al., 1996) recommended that Cohen downplay these issues.
One explanation was supplied by Patrick Stroh (personal communication, 1997,
Feb. 4), director of strategic planning and targeting for BrabenderCox, a
consulting firm in Pittsburgh and Washington that works only for Republicans
like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for the U.S. Senate. Stroh said: Commonly
consultants look at a combination of factors in trying to see how strongly
voters feel about issues and how the challenger might position himself. Cohen's
consultants moved him away from the concerns voters clearly considered most
important and toward the ones they thought could help him win, such as crime and
big spending (Lauer et. al. 1996). These issues were popular and Congressman
Coyne's voting record on them was not, media consultant Robinson (1997) argues,
but "Coyne and the party had too much strength for the tactics to work."
To arrive at their recommendations, Cohen's pollsters used a relatively
newDand controversialDtechnique called the "push poll." Push poll questions
gauge the depth of voters' support, according to Pat Dunham (personal
communication, 1997, Feb. 5) , chair of the political science department at
Duquesne University. While push polls may have been used in 1992, Dunham says,
they first came into public view in 1996. These polls push voters to see if
they stick by their choices, as those choices are painted in an increasingly bad
light. For example, pollsters said to Coyne supporters (Lauer et al., 1996, p.
4): "Coyne voted to reduce prison sentences for those convicted of possessing
crack cocaine," then asked whether that description, "if it is accurate," raised
doubts in voters' minds about their candidate. If an issue raises doubt, it
indicates where the incumbent is vulnerable. The results help the challenger
pinpoint the issues that will give him the most bang for his advertising buck,
"Push polls are the pornography of politics," says political consultant
Dennis Casey (1997), who has represented 54 candidates and helped 47 of them to
victory. A pure poll, Casey says, measures where the candidate is in relation
to the opposition. A push poll is really "phone banking, where you are
advocating for your candidate. Amateurs think it also gives you data. It
doesn't give you good data. The respondents will be led by the pollster."
"They're garbage," analyst Jon Delano (1997) says of push polls. "Their
purpose is to plant a lie." Or, at least ignore the context. Coyne, for
example, voted to equalize the penalties for crack and cocaine possession.
Backers of the measure had argued that the stiffer penalties for crack, commonly
seen as a "black" drug, were racist.
As a result of the poll (Lauer et al., 1996), Cohen's advisers told him not
to campaign on the claim that he would be a younger, stronger alternative to the
Republican voices in Washington. Voters did not feel as strongly on that issue
as they did on others. And they advised him to drop economic development and job
creation as issues. Cohen's record was not strong enough nor Coyne's weak
enough for good positioning. Besides, his pollsters said, "The bottom line on
the jobs issue, which is showing up in the latest national polls, is that voters
do not hold out much hope that politicians can do much to solve the economic
problems facing the nation" (p. 19).
After the consultants began their work, Cohen (1997) admits, the campaign
took a turn. His consultants unanimously pushed him to go negative. And he
did. Their advice led Cohen (Lauer et al., 1996) to shift the campaign's focus
and distinguish himself from Coyne by attacking the incumbent's liberal record
and sounding a more conservative note. On their heels came the media blitzDTV
and radio ads, direct mail, heating up in February and red hot by April.
Cohen's ads tarred and feathered Coyne. Called him soft on crime, a
tax-and-spend liberal, even implied he was gay , according to some
interpretations. But the negatives didn't stick.
Instead, Cohen's support dropped as fast as an April thunderstorm.
Supporters yanked out their lawn signs, some defiantly sticking them upside down
among the tulips. The press, which had been ignoring Cohen's positive messages,
now lambasted him (Deibler, 1996, April 16; O'Toole, 1996, April 20; O'Toole,
1996, April 21; Roddy, 1996, April 19). Both the public and the news media pay
more attention to negative campaigning, one reason nearly half of all campaigns
use it (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1991, p. 3). In this case, however, the
attention did not help the negative campaigner.
Bill Coyne's high approval ratings and Dan Cohen's low recognition on the
poll were a danger signal for the "boomerang effect," says Republican consultant
Patrick Stroh (1997). Any challenger who goes negative risks it backfiring "if
the incumbent is well liked and/or the attacker is (a) not well known or (b) has
high negatives himself," Stroh contends.
Dan Cohen's consultants had designed a standard advertising campaign
against an incumbentDone that clawed at the incumbent's image and fed on his
soft support. But Coyne's image proved too tough in a town where political
insiders still call the 60-year-old Congressman "Billy." The attack did not
penetrate hometown and party loyaltyDand Cohen's bright promise burned up in a
firestorm of acrimony.
Cohen (1997) now admits that his negative advertising campaign was a
mistake. But the news media never made note that consultants had designed
Cohen's negative ads. They heaped all the blame on the candidate himself.
Sabato (1989) argues that the news media and consultants have a symbiotic
relationship. Each relies upon the other. This relationship leaves the public
out of the loop and can make voters more cynical about the whole electoral
process. The press rarely criticizes consultants or takes them to task for
leading a candidate to defeat with bad advice. In fact, the media praise them
as gods of the political wars; geniuses who elect candidates. Sabato (1989)
speculates that consultants get the Teflon treatment because they are great
sources (p. 16). In fact, DeVries (1989) claims, this admiration for
consultants has gone so far that "candidates today are often judged by their
stable of consultants. One takes a look at who has been retained by the
candidate and, based on that judgment, makes a decision about the viability of
that candidate's campaign" ( p. 22).
Cohen's media blitz hit hard and hit negatively, beginning February 1 with
an ad in the Jewish Chronicle headlined: "Coyne Votes Against Israel Aid" (Dan
Cohen for Congress, 1996). The counter attack by Bill Coyne's supporters might
have been predicted. The Congressman's record as a long-time supporter of
Israel was widely known in the Jewish community. Two weeks later, the Chronicle
carried letters, including two from stalwart, mainline Democrats, County Coroner
Cyril H. Wecht (1996) and former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff (1996), wagging
fingers of "shame" and "outrage" at Cohen. Cohen was already on the outs with
this faction because he had supported independent Democrat Mike Dawida for
County Commissioner over the incumbents and long-time party favorites, Tom
Forester and Pete Flaherty, in the previous spring's primary.
Liane Ellison Norman, who had held two coffee socials at her Squirrel Hill
home for Cohen, heard about the ad and told Cohen she would withdraw her support
if he continued his negative campaigning. Two months later, Norman (1996)
wrote again. "Now there is a whole blizzard of ads I find pretty disgusting,"
she told Cohen. "They are unworthy and degrade the electoral process." She
called her friends who had attended the coffees and urged them to vote for Bill
Coyne (Norman, personal communication, 1997, Jan. 5).
Apparently Pittsburghers were agreeing with Norman, not Cohen's spin
doctors. But the campaign pressed on. TV ads punched at Coyne. They accused
him of missing out on federal funding for jobs programs, of voting 14 times for
his own payraises, of favoring lower sentences for drug users, and giving
college loans to convicts.
Harder-hitting direct mail portrayed Coyne as a man on a "spree of
unprecedented proportions. A rampage of killer dimensions. One look at Bill
Coyne and you know for sure...you're looking in the face of a Natural Born
Spender" (Ewing/Baughman, 1996, Natural born spender). Arriving just before
election day, one direct mail ad (Ewing/Baughman, 1996, Welcome to Puerto Rico)
said: "Bill Coyne gave special tax breaks to mega-corporations that send
Pittsburgh jobs to Puerto Rico."
Pittsburghers, says consultant Dennis Casey (1997), have a basic respect
for people that comes out of their work ethic. "When Cohen came in with a
scorcher, it offended people." These voters are loyal liberals, electing Coyne
to this seat for 16 years and William Moorhead for 24 years before him. And
once you "violate that loyalty of Pittsburgh voters," according to Raymond E.
Owen, chair of the University of Pittsburgh's political science department,
"it's like a West Virginia family feudDThey always remember."
"While I don't believe him to be a mean person, Cohen's campaign gave new
meaning to the term mean-spirited," Dimitri Vassilaros wrote in The Observer
(1996, May 1-7, p. 9). In the same paper, Michael Romanello complained that
Cohen had switched "from matters of economic development to his support for
police, crime fighting and family values. These terms, as Cohen's fellow
liberal Democrats have repeatedly charged when they've been used by Republican
candidates, are common anti-black, anti-gay buzzwords" (p. 10). The Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette (1996, April 21) noted that Cohen had switched his argument from
telling voters he would stand up to right-wing Republicans to sounding like one
himself. "Of course, Mr. Cohen_is not a Newt-Gingrich-Rick Santorum Republican,
he just plays one on TV" (p. B-3).
But Cohen's campaign manager Bill Peduto (Cohen & Peduto, personal
communication, 1997, Jan. 16) jumps to the defense. "Dan Cohen never took one
position that was not also taken by President Clinton." Faint praise, some
might say, but the creation of this kind of ambiguity is the stock and trade of
political media consultants, according to Petracca (1989). And it is built atop
politicians' own tendencies toward ambiguity. "First, they (consultants) make it
standard practice, and second it becomes institutionalized in the organization
and running of the campaign" (Petracca, 1989, p. 13).
Cohen's campaign got so negative that the Post-Gazette's editorial board
(Deibler, 1996, April 24) later called it "the political equivalent of a mad
scientist's experiment," saying Cohen had "mixed a lot of poisons together,
watched the brew bubble and gurgle and then succumbed to the fumes."
"It was a sleazy campaign, very sleazy," Congressman Bill Coyne (personal
communication, 1997, Jan. 30) says, still angry a year later. "Every candidate
should be guided by moral principles and for my part that means rejecting
anything sleazy." Coyne took the high ground, resisting any response to the
jibes in Cohen's ads. Conveniently, this is exactly the right posture
strategically for an incumbent, local consultants agree (Casey, 1997; Delano,
1997; Stroh, 1997). But Coyne goes further: "There is no place in politicsDin a
race for City Council or CongressDfor the kind of demeaning tactics used in that
campaign by my opponent."
A repentant Dan Cohen (1997) now agrees. "You have to lead from the
heart....That campaign wasn't me, and it wasn't Pittsburgh," he says. "I
listened to the consultants, but I should have listened to myself and to my
constituents._I approved negative ads against Bill Coyne, and that was wrong._I
have apologized, and I have learned from it."
Cohen is not the only candidate to have lost control once the consultants
stepped in. In a survey of professional consultants, 44% said that "when it
comes to setting issue priorities candidates are neither very involved nor very
influential. When it comes to running an election 60% of the consultants said
that their candidate/clients were neither very involved nor influential in the
day-to-day tactical operation of the campaign" (Petracca, 1989, p. 13). Perhaps
this is because candidates must tend to what consultants neglect: things like
constituent service, political organization and volunteerism, while consultants
favor analyses of voter preference, fund-raising, and advertising strategies
(Petracca, 1989). This survey's results fit with the movie industry picture of
political consultants as "highly skilled puppetmasters who pull the strings of
programmable candidates; powerful manipulators who shape destinyDfrom war policy
to the death penaltyDwith memos and poll numbers" (Faucheux, 1996, p. 2).
Congressman Coyne had always been seen as a decent, honest guy, but the
primary attacks canonized him, as one supporter put it. Local political
consultant Dennis Casey, who opposes negative campaigning on principle, thinks
this example proves it is impractical as well. "You have an incumbent who is
known far and wide as one of the nice guys of the world, and he holds a powerful
position on the Ways and Means Committee. It stretches the public's credibility
to attack a nice guy."
Besides, Casey adds, Cohen wore the attacker role like an ill-fitting suit.
"Dan Cohen went against his nature. He's not an attack guy. You can't do
Voters frequently complain about negative advertising in political
campaigns, but few experts deny its effectiveness. Casey (1997) points out that
the first negative ads in this country were broadsides posted against George
Washington's presidential candidacy. But the more significant landmark for
modern campaigning is the first televised negative advertisement in 1952 by
Estes Kefauver against Dwight D. Eisenhower. The effect of negative advertising
on voter attitudes escalated after television spread its distribution and
enhanced its effectiveness, say Sabato and Simpson (1996).
Negative campaigning reached its modern zenith in the 1988 presidential
race, a campaign many consider the nadir of political discourse. Lee Atwater,
Reagan's spin doctor and later the master of Bush's negative 1988 campaign,
predictedDon his death bedDthat the time was at hand when negative advertising
would backfire and die of natural causes. The public, he said, would come to
reject it (Brady, 1997), as Pittsburgh voters did in this election.
Negative political advertising is usually employed to damage the opponent's
reputation, although it can also damage the attacker's. "Some professional
consultants suggested that 'a wave of negative ads frequently reduces the
attacker's political standing a few points. But those numbers nearly always
bounce back within a few days'" (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1991, p. 14). But
aspiring politicians like Dan Cohen have learned the hard way that these numbers
do not always bounce back. In fact, depending on the opponent's standing in the
community, negative advertising can severely damage the attacker's reputation,
making it almost impossible to salvage his reputation. "If you get beaten
badly, the perception is that you can't come back. It's hard to raise money the
next time, so it (negative campaigning) is a double -edged sword," according to
consultant Pat Stroh (1997).
Peduto (Cohen & Peduto, 1997) says, however, that hard-hitting advertising
tactics are called for in an electoral system that is stacked so overwhelmingly
in favor of incumbents. History, Peduto claims, shows a challenger wins only
one out of 2,000 elections unless the incumbent falls victim to redistricting or
a scandal. Cohen and his consultants banked on both of these to help them.
Pennsylvania's 14th Congressional district has always been a reliable
liberal stronghold for the Democrats, but the 1992 redistricting added more
conservative suburban neighborhoods to this urban district. Consultants appear
to have advised Cohen to run to the right of the left-leaning Coyne and garner
support from the suburbs (Lauer et al., 1996).
They also played up any hint of scandal in Coyne's record, despite the
incumbent's reputation as a clean politician. Consultants commonly use scandal
to turn an incumbent's advantage around (Ginsberg, 1989). Some even prescribe
that the challenger try an "R.I.P." formulaD revelation, investigation, and
prosecutionDto reveal an alleged wrongdoing, trigger an investigation and
finally the prosecution of the official(s) involved. "This weaponry, R.I.P.,
has in some respects come to replace electoral conflicts in the United States.
Politicians are disgraced, thrown out of office, or sent to prison" (Ginsberg,
1989, p. 19).
Consultants are to blame for much of the perception, if not the reality, of
corruption in modern politicians and political campaigns, say Sabato and Simpson
(1996). They point out, however, that corruption is as old as politics itself.
Thomas Jefferson mentioned it in his Notes on the State of Virginia. "In every
government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and
degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open,
cultivate, and improve" (as quoted in Sabato & Simpson, 1996, p. 18). In fact,
the United States has experienced a major scandal in government every 50 years
since 1872, according to Elizabeth Drew (1983). From the Credit Mobilier scandal
in 1872 to the Teapot Dome in 1923 and 1924, to the Watergate Scandal in
1972-74, America has traveled a 50-year cycle of scandal. (If this trend
continues, America can expect the next large political scandal in 2022.)
"Corruption is truly a staple of our Republic's existence, and its durable,
undeniable persistence in the face of repeated, energetic attempts to eradicate
it is darkly wondrous" (Sabato & Simpson, 1996, p. 10).
In fact, Sabato and Simpson contend, many experts believe that politics are
actually cleaner than ever today. "[T]here have been very few cases of outright
bribery revealed in recent years; and public servants are required by the law to
abide by strict ethical codes that guard against conflicts of interest and other
perceived evils" (p. 6). Corruption, however, appears to be more prevalent,
Sabato and Simpson say, because dealings that used to be held in back rooms,
where no one but political insiders saw, have become public through extensive
media coverage and reform regulations that require full disclosure of financial
donations and campaign activities.
Sabato and Simpson (1996) also point to the push poll as both a symptom and
cause of scandal in political campaigning. In 1994, they point out, pollsters
asked Maine voters if they would vote for GOP Congressional nominee Richard A.
Bennett if they knew he had defaulted on student loans. He never had. In 1994,
pollsters falsely asserted that Alaskan Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles supported
gay marriages and adoptions.
While government may be less corrupt, campaigns "are sinking ever deeper
into a bog of sleaze and slimeDa primordial political ooze whose toxicity is
increased by new technologies that make voters who are already turned off hate
politics all the more intensely" (p. 10). In fact, the authors blame campaign
scandals for the fact that many Americans have lost faith in government itself.
In 1964, polls showed 76% of Americans thought they could trust the government
to do what was right most of the time. By 1995, only 19% of Americans agreed
with that statement.
Aftermath and Analysis
Dan Cohen has taken a sheepish "Checkers"-like speech on the road and won
the party's endorsement for the May primary. Common wisdom says Cohen will
survive, in part because three contendersDEdward D'Alessandro, Barbara Behrend
Ernsberger, and Cohen's former treasurer, Rich FitzgeraldD divide his primary
opposition. A fourth, attorney Jonathan Robison, dropped out in March after
determining that he agreed with Cohen on most issues and that Cohen was likely
to win. And, as political analyst Jon Delano and Duquesne University political
scientist Patricia Dunham contend, voters have a long history of electing
officials after they have suffered a defeat. "In the 1997 primary, we will see
whether Dan Cohen is a dead duck or if people forgive him," Delano said.
_Some think he has burned too many bridges. "Perhaps Dan Cohen could
rehabilitate himself, but people will still be suspicious. 'Once spurned, twice
shy,'" says one time supporter Liane Norman (1997), who thinks Cohen's campaign
hurt not only himself but the Democratic party's next generation.
All the Pittsburgh pundits agree that the local Democratic party needs to
nurture a younger generation to serve this liberal constituency. In that sense,
it is critical that Democrats bury the hatchet long enough to learn what Dan
Cohen's failed campaign has to teach them.
Some, like Dennis Casey, think that lesson is to abandon negative
campaigning, which he thinks degrades the political process and too often
backfires. Others like Liane Norman and Kathryn Hens-Greco, who left the Cohen
campaign, agree. They now support Rich Fitzgerald.
To media consultant Will Robinson, the most important lesson is that
negative tactics that may work in a general election can fail miserably in a
primary. "All the studies I've seen say that people who vote in primaries
anywhere tend to better informed," explains University of Pittsburgh history
professor Van Beck Hall (personal communication, 1997, Feb. 20). And the
exceptionally low voter turnout last spring meant that only the most
dedicatedDand best informedDparty stalwarts participated.
Taken together, last spring's primary for Congress and this spring's race
for City Council District 8 point out the worst and the best in the modern
political campaign process. At one time the powerful Democratic Party would
have prevented Cohen's fiasco last spring. The party's endorsement of Coyne
before the primary would have stopped the challenge. But as Theodore H. White,
presidential chronicler and political journalist, said: "The old bosses are long
gone and with them the old parties. In their place has grown a new breed of
young professionals whose working skills in the new politics would make the old
boys look like stumblebums" (as quoted in Trent & Friedenberg, 1991, p. 6).
Consultants now promote candidates and issues that drive voters to the polls,
which was once the role of the party. The decline of the party system has passed
the job along to whomever was willing to step up to the challenge (Ginsberg,
1989, p. 19).
Now candidates run more independently, relying on consultants rather than
ward heelers. And in this sense the whole process is more open, more
democratic. But arguments over whether the new or old political system is the
more democratic are not that simple.
Consultants bring many things to the electoral process. The polling they
do, which parties shunned, has "enhanced the capacity of candidates to discuss
issues that voters are concerned about and to target that information" (DeVries,
1989, p. 24). Done correctly, polling provides a two-way communication stream,
and voters are privy to a flow of targeted, relevant information. Consultants
have "removed the party communicating filter. Now candidates can go directly to
the voters" (DeVries, p. 24).
Consultants have also made it possible for non-traditional candidates to be
elected. Personal resources provide opportunities for women, minority and other
non-traditional candidates, who might not have made it through the party's
Some even argue that consultants will strengthen the party again.
"Consultants hope to build a stronger relationship with parties. Relationships
with parties are the only relationships that exist during off-year elections.
And consultants are eager to foster them" (Lake, 1989, p. 28).
Critics, however, contend that consultants threaten the very fundamentals
of democracy. They reduce the opportunities for novices to participate in
politics, Petracca argues (1989, p. 13). They shrink the need for grassroots
activity, or at least the traditional grassroots, says Lake (1989, p. 6). Now
candidates can buy, along with consultants, their paid "grassroots" staffs that
are "organized and highly technical" (Lake, p. 26). The more professional a
candidate's campaign appears, the more likely are people to donate their time
and money (Hernson, 1992, p. 860). And, since money can buy "grassroots" help,
fewer amateur volunteers are needed.
Thus, consultants and their staffs take a lot of drudgery out of campaigns
by doing unglamorous tasks like direct mail, phone banking and fund-raising.
They bring computers that reduce or eliminate the human involvement, DeVries
(1989) points out. But that human involvement brought more citizens into the
electoral process and invested them in its outcome.
Critics point out that consultants have no long term vision and they damage
candidates like Cohen in their all-out fights to win. "There is pressure on the
candidate and on the consultants to win this campaign," Pat Stroh of
BrabenderCox points out. "They don't think about the long run" the way
political parties must. Cohen should have gone down to defeat graciously and
used his campaign to build a positive image, Stroh suggests, then come back
stronger the next time. But consultants, whose financial bread is buttered only
with campaign victories, would rarely play such a strategy. A stronger
Democratic Party would have taken a rising star like Dan Cohen, groomed his
image, protected him from the foibles of his own ambition, and saved him for a
Unlike political parties, consultants have little stake in governance.
They have no real accountability to the public, only the win-loss record they
sell to candidates. There is minimal internal check upon consultants. When the
American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) was created in 1969, it
composed this Code of Professional Ethics, which is signed by all its members:
y I shall not indulge in any activity which would corrupt or degrade
the practice of political campaigning
y I shall treat my colleagues and clients with respect and never
intentionally injure their professional or personal reputations
y I shall respect the confidence of my clients and not reveal
confidential nor private information obtained during our professional
y I shall use no appeal to voters which is based on racism, religion,
gender, or unlawful discrimination and shall condemn those who use such
practices. In turn, I shall work for equal voting rights and
privileges for all citizens
y I shall refrain from false or misleading attacks on an opponent or
member or his or her family and shall do everything in my power to
prevent others from using such tactics
y I shall document accurately and fully any criticism of an opponent
or his or her record
y I shall be honest in my relationship with the media and candidly
answer questions when I have the authority to do so
y I shall use any funds I receive from my clients, or on behalf of my
clients, only for those purposes invoiced in writing
y I shall not support any individual or organization which reports to
practices forbidden by this Code (American Association of Political
While the code sounds promising, only 800 of the 7,000 practicing political
consultants have agreed to work within its guidelines.
Trent and Friedenberg (1991), however, argue that consultants are more than
mere exploiters of the system for their own gain. Most are dedicated to their
causes. "The primary motivation of most consultants is to make an impact on the
political process. Most consultants have strong political beliefs. They work
for like-minded candidates" (p. 291). Consultants are like the parties in that
they identify with a specific policy platform and work for clients who stand for
At one time, strong political parties in most major cities controlled the
primary process through endorsement and pork barrel promises. The old
Democratic machine that would have protected Dan Cohen last year would also have
blocked the range of candidates competing this spring in Pittsburgh City Council
District 8. Four young candidates are vying for the seat that represents a
mixture of working class and wealthy neighborhoods in Pittsburgh's East End.
Dan Cohen, a year older and wiser, has returned to the familiar themes that
brought him success in the past. He promises to work for economic development
and to stop the leak of young talent from the area. He points to his work with
community policing and playground safety. And he promises not to go negative.
"I've made a mistake," Cohen admits. "Most people do. The important thing is
to learn from it."
His one time ally and campaign treasurer, Rich Fitzgerald, has never run
for office before, but he decided to challenge Cohen after supporters and some
in the media congratulated him for his courage last year. He admits some have
also accused him of opportunism. Fitzgerald and the other two challengers are
conducting positive campaigns, talking about the city's most pressing
issueDbringing new business to Pittsburgh.
In last spring's primary, the modern campaign process was played as a
farceDa bitter battle enacted for a small audience. Most voters didn't even
enter the theater. This year's race has a more hopeful plotDone promising young
politician and three upbeat challengers who have taken the voters' message to
heart; a host of younger residents taking part in these campaigns; and a
political debate that has swung back on track with issues that really matter to
the health of the city.
Few would argue for a return of the old party bosses who crushed all choice
but their own in the primaries. But many would like to see more positive
campaigns, ones that might draw voters out of their apathy and cynicism and out
to the polls, rather than the negative, winner-take-all contests that
consultants have tended to bring us.
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