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How Bad a Campaign So Far? : They're Really Into It Now: What's Fair and What's Not

April 01, 1990

Let's face it: An election campaign for governor in a state of 29 million people is no milquetoast debating society outing. One way to reach that many people with a pointed, undiluted message is via television advertising--not ordinarily the most subtle of instruments. And, with so much at stake, it would be naive to expect even two respected politicians such as Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to spurn the opportunity to score points through commercials that attack a foe's record.

"Negative" advertising can be effective, even ads that distort records or positions on issues. Still, no candidate can count on winning with TV spots alone. A big-impact ad can cause a quick blip in opinion polls, but the advantage is usually transitory: As the most recent Times Poll shows, Feinstein's dramatic 19-point lead, which most analysts attributed to an effective TV commercial, dipped from 19 points to 11 in the wake of Van de Kamp's advertising counterattack.

But just why voters vote the way they do on Election Day is a complex and little-understood process involving much more than commercials. Eleven weeks remain until California Democrats choose, in the June 5 primary, either Van de Kamp or Feinstein as their nominee. That provides plenty of time for a discussion of the major issues facing California.

In the meantime, voters might as well be wary of all campaign ads, since they tend to provide just one, necessarily simplistic side of a story. They should similarly be skeptical of opponents' countercharges. If Van de Kamp accuses Feinstein of leaving San Francisco in a fiscal mess, The Times and others will examine the record to see if that's so. Sure, a candidate's efforts to portray an opponent's record in the worst possible light is standard electioneering fare. But that's not the same thing as Feinstein's counterpunching attempt to portray Van De Kamp's attack on her record as reminiscent of Richard Nixon's smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas 40 years ago. That's a bit much.

For all the confusion and distortions thrown at voters in an election campaign, they often wind up making good decisions. This is why Feinstein and Van de Kamp would be mistaken to overlook any opportunity to demonstrate to California voters that they are experienced, intelligent candidates who do indeed have valid ideas about how the state should be run.

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