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Decision '92 : SPECIAL VOTERS' GUIDE TO STATE AND LOCAL ELECTIONS : VOTER BEWARE

October 25, 1992|PAUL FELDMAN

Two-time Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once said: "The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal...is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process."

Well, Stevenson lost twice and has been dead and buried for 27 years. Meanwhile, the merchandising of politicians continues unabated, with its refinement into a science--albeit a slippery one.

To help cope with the chicanery, or, as fight promoter Don King might put it, the trickeration foisted upon the public by high-paid, low-thinking campaign consultants, The Times offers a compendium of campaign sleight of hand.

"OFFICIAL" CAMPAIGN LITERATURE

Many voters tend to regard campaign mailers for what they frequently are: distorted, one-sided appeals pandering to the basest of instincts. As a result, four to five campaign letters are tossed into the circular file for each one that is actually opened, consultants say.

Consequently, between now and November 3, scores of candidates will be flooding mailboxes across California with colorful, enticing literature that voters may think they cannot afford to throw out before perusing.

Example

Last spring, thousands of Los Angeles voters received a mailer that came in the same size, shape and type-face as the Official Sample Ballot each voter receives from the county clerk's office. On second glance, the mailer turned out to be an elaborate mockup of the official ballot, containing Rep. Maxine Waters' (D-LA) endorsements for a wide range of elected offices. (see above)

How to Cope

Cast a wary eye on envelopes that read: "Dated Material - Open Immediately," "Urgent Message," "Election Notice," 'Mailogram," "Official Document Enclosed," or "Western Union Urgent Transmittal! Open Immediately."

* Remember that very few pieces of literature received during a campaign are truly official and impartial. These are the Official Sample Ballot pamphlet mailed by the county clerk's office and similar pamphlets from the Secretary of State and local municipalities that provide the text of initiatives that will appear on the November ballot.

* When a warning is included on the envelope of a political mailer stating that it is a federal crime to tamper with the mail, rest assured that the message is true of all mail.

SLATE MAILERS

When a last-minute mailer says "Vote Democratic!" and is festooned with drawings of JFK, FDR and a donkey, one might assume the endorsements contained therein have some connection to the Democratic Party. Similarly, one might think that the Republican Party has a hand in slate mailers featuring drawings of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and an elephant.

Not necessarily so.

The bottom line of those ubiquitous endorsement mailers that arrive shortly before Election Day is profit -- gobs of it. Consultants who put together these slate mailers often charge candidates $100,000 or more to be included.

Why would candidates pay such steep sums? For one thing, to confuse voters. The most common example is the endorsement of a Republican on an ostensibly Democratic mailer -- and vice versa.

Example

Four days before the 1990 election, Republican state attorney general candidate Dan Lungren held a press conference to blast Democratic foe Arlo Smith because Smith's name appeared on a mailer distributed by an organization named the Republican Vote By Mail Project. One day later, Lungren's name showed up on another mass mailer for which he paid a fee to be included. The mailer was titled: "Attention Democrats: Election Day Voting Guide." Lungren eventually won the race for the state's top law enforcement post by a margin of less than 0.41%.

How to Cope

* Don't conclude that a mailer issued by a firm with the name "Democrat" in it endorses Democratic candidates only. The same goes for mailers with the word Republican. The part y affiliation of every candidate is listed on the official ballot.

* Determine which candidates have paid for the privilege of being endorsed on a mailer. This information is customarily denoted by an asterisk linked to an explanation in small print. Unfortunately, the explanations themselves are often intentionally confusing. On the June primary Democratic Voter Guide, the disclaimer stated: "Not paid for or authorized by candidates and ballot measures not marked by an *." In English, that means that candidates with asterisks next to their name paid to be endorsed in the mailer.

LAST-MINUTE HITS

Consultants sometimes joke that in the final week before an election, "the truth becomes irrelevant." The reason last-minute attacks can be so effective is that they do not afford an opponent an adequate opportunity to rebut a false or slanted charge. Such attacks may also draw attention away from the more important issues of the campaign. Thus anything heard in the last week of a race should be weighed with particular caution.

The vehicles for last-minute distortions may include television and radio ads, campaign appearances and literature distributed by mail.

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