Does asking about civility breed incivility?
It did for the U.S. Senate campaigns of state Treasurer Josh Mandel and Sen. Sherrod Brown.
The Beacon Journal approached them to talk about the guidelines of a local civility effort, but mouthpieces for both Ohio candidates chose instead to mimic attack ads.
All the political handlers did was take shots at favorite targets. The likely reason: The political handbooks say close races are won through the use of the attack ads and nasty comments that most people find offensive.
So when the Beacon Journal asked about civility, the candidates themselves never became involved and the issue of what constitutes incivility and how to prevent it was never discussed.
That comes in an era when three in four Ohioans think incivility in politics is a serious or somewhat serious problem and they are bombarded with telephone and television attacks.
In what might seem like a softball question, the campaigns were asked to comment on this Civility Test, which would be used to gauge whether political statements were indeed civil:
• Does the statement contain offensive language, derogatory comments, or attack the motives of another person?
• Does the statement misrepresent, belittle, or dismiss another person’s opinion?
• Does the statement interrupt discourse, disrupt deliberation, or escalate conflict in a dialogue with other people?
Sadie Weiner, press secretary for Friends of Sherrod Brown, didn’t comment on the test except that Brown does not take pledges.
And, she said of the opponent: “Josh Mandel has become well-known for distorting the facts and repeating lies about Senator Brown’s record. Our campaign ads are true and tell an important story about Sherrod’s work for middle-class Ohioans and Josh Mandel’s failure to show up for work or hire qualified staff.”
Travis Considine, communications director of Josh Mandel for U.S. Senate, took another course, and attacked an Akron Beacon Journal editorial writer: “The two articles The Beacon Journal published by Steve Hoffman, both written without the courtesy of an interview or opportunity for us to set the record straight, represent your publication’s particularly uncivil attitude toward our campaign. These articles violate all three of the civility standards you list.” He provided links to editorial-page columns titled “How low will Josh Mandel go?” and “Forget the boots, pull on the waders.”
Hoffman’s columns offered his personal opinions on what the editorial board considered widely reported and undisputed public statements and political advertising by Mandel.
In a followup to Considine, it was explained that unlike opinion pieces, which take positions, the request for an interview on civility was for a news story seeking equal representation from both campaigns.
Neither campaign offered an interview.
The test is part of the Ohio Civility Project, which began in 2010 and has grown into a collaboration of the University of Akron, Cleveland State University and the University of Mount Union, Akron’s faith community and the Beacon Journal. Some civic leaders joined last week.
The test will be used to grade the civility of campaign ads.
Other candidates will be asked the same questions the Mandel and Brown camps declined to address.
The community also will be challenged to consider the guidelines.
Polling shows disgust
Polling data indicate the public is fed up with incivility.
Akron-area residents were asked “How likely are you to vote against candidates that are disrespectful and discourteous in campaigns? Almost 41 percent said “Very Likely. More than 34 percent said “Somewhat likely.”
They also were asked how likely they are to vote for candidates who “pledge to be respectful and courteous in campaigns? More than 87 percent said very likely or somewhat likely.
The Center for Marketing and Opinion Research in Akron conducted the poll this summer for the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. The company surveyed 600 randomly selected adults in the five-county Akron-Canton area. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.
While the poll results show area residents do not like incivility, there is a belief among politicians that attack ads, the most common form of incivility, are effective.
Strong tactics necessary
Some candidates are deciding they can’t live without them.
That’s especially true in close races like the Mandel-Brown contest, according to Stephen C. Brooks, associate professor in the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute.
He said that when a challenger is trailing an incumbent in a tight race, he must convince voters they made a mistake by previously voting for the incumbent. “You don’t do that by saying ‘I’m just going to be better’ because that’s not going to work,” he said.
In a close campaign, political managers realize there are not enough undecided voters to make a difference.
“You really don’t have enough undecideds, true undecideds, to sway, so you probably are going to have to do two things,” Brooks said. “One, you have to try to get some of these people who are already committed to uncommit, which is very similar to convincing them that they already made a mistake. And in addition you gotta make sure that the people that are supporting you don’t stay home and you don’t do that by being nice either. You do that by making them mad. And one way to make them mad is to scare them about what the world will be like if the other person wins. And, essentially, the subliminal message is that it will be your fault if it turns out that way because you didn’t make it different.”
Brooks said campaigns try to tell voters, “This is really going to be a statement about whether our ideas or their ideas are what America wants.” But he said the country is so divided, there rarely is an overwhelming victory and mandate for either side.
For people handling the campaigns, it’s all about winning.
“Their job is to elect the candidate,” Brooks said, “and it is not as if they’re hiding back there because they are ashamed of what they are doing or anything like that. … They do what they do for no other reason than to get the candidate elected and when that kind of campaigning works to get candidates elected they essentially are doing their job.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter @Davescottofakro.