This year's presidential race could forever change campaigning

August 03, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- While the outcomes of this summer's political conventions are predictable, the same cannot be said for the campaigns each candidate will wage this fall, says a University of Florida political communications expert.

The just-completed Republican convention sets the stage for a presidential campaign that will leave the public exhausted, tired of negative advertisements and vowing to find new ways -- such as the Internet -- to learn about the candidates and talk with fellow voters.

Such factors, plus the efforts seen to attract young and ethnic voters, will make the 2000 political season one to remember, both anecdotally and historically, said Marilyn Roberts, a UF professor of advertising and political communication.

"The 2000 presidential campaign will be effective because it will change campaigning as we know it," she said. "It also will have an effect on how the news media cover campaigns. It is not so much that it is the first campaign in the new millennium that will make it special -- but it holds many long-lasting implications."

Roberts, who worked on political campaigns while in the private sector, has studied political communications for 12 years. She spoke this spring at an international public relations symposium in Washington, D.C., in a talk titled "Measuring the Effectiveness of Public Affairs: The 2000 Campaign Election."

"There are many factors that are going to change the future of campaigns, as we know it," Roberts said. "Of course, the Internet. We've seen it as a tool in fund raising. We've seen it now as a tool in candidates' negativity, also negative ads appearing on the Internet. That's one large factor."

The Internet allows politicians to collect followers' e-mail and build an online arsenal as they prepare to battle for the White House. The database then can be used to deliver an unfiltered message for rallying the troops or responding to jabs lobbed by the other side.

Such direct communication may become necessary. Roberts' research comparing media coverage of President Richard Nixon during Watergate with that of President Clinton during the impeachment trial showed that overall, the American people thought the news coverage was better during Watergate.

Roberts said earlier this spring that another factor in upcoming elections will be the young and the ethnic vote, and the Republican convention in Philadelphia this week proved her point. The GOP stage saw addresses from wrestling icon The Rock and George W. Bush's nephew, George P. Bush, the Spanish-speaking son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The the convention closed with falling balloons and delegates dancing to the tunes of Latino pop sensation Ricky Martin.

"This election will be a time that the Hispanic/ Latino voters really establish themselves on the American public scene," Roberts said. "Great efforts are being made to have the kind of massive turnout in the Hispanic/Latino populations as we have had in previous years with the African-American voting public.

"George P. Bush is certainly the mechanism the GOP is using," Roberts said. "He's seen as the 'Ricky Martin' of the GOP."

The upside of these efforts could be a reconnection with a large voting bloc that may secure a future for whichever party is most successful.

"The White House is up for grabs. This is the year that we will have redistricting. Stakes are very high for the two parties. And also it's going to be important that if the independent party is truly going to be a legitimate party in the future, that it make inroads," she said.

When the stakes are high, the negative advertisements will appear. And the closer the race becomes, the more negative the messages become, Roberts said. Voters and candidates will continue to bemoan the tactic, but it's here to stay for one simple reason: It works.

"The reason that it works is that if I tell you 10 things that are good about my next-door neighbor but I tell you two things that are bad and I see you a week later, you're going to remember the two things bad but you can barely remember the 10 things that I said that were positive," she said. "It's the way the human mind works."
Writer: John C. Lester

University of Florida

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