Monday, May 28, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Special election shows again that attack ads stain public service

"The end justifies the means" is a slogan you won't see used by a single candidate seeking public office.

But it's the operating theory for many of them, as voters were reminded last week during the special election to fill a vacant seat from the Plant City area in the Florida House of Representatives.

As Halloween, fittingly, approached, mailboxes of registered Republicans in House District 58 filled with the oversized postcards in ominous colors and type styles that voters have grown used to at election time.

The syntax of these attack ads is all too familiar, as well, if newly updated to reflect the Trump era:

"Lie'n Yvonne Fry sued, refusing to pay."

"Yvonne Fry is misleading voters again, this time about jobs."

"Liberals like Yvonne Fry want to take away your God-given gun rights."

First of all, we must have missed the verses in scripture that include the declaration on firearms.

In the end, Yvonne Fry, seeking the GOP nomination for the House seat, lost her bid Tuesday to Lawrence McClure — who positioned himself as the more conservative political outsider in the race — but not before responding with her own late volley of anti-McClure mailers.

As Tampa Bay Times correspondent William March reports, Fry ran closer to McClure in early and absentee voting than on Election Day, indicating perhaps that the attack ads arriving later in the campaign helped turn the tide against her.

Still, it's not at all clear that attack ads, however they're delivered, win elections, as one national study published a decade ago in the Journal of Politics concludes: "All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign."

Nor is it clear, the study found, that the tone established by this approach turns off the electorate to the process. Little evidence was found "that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout, though it does slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government and possibly overall public mood."

Whatever its impact, this very small local example — the District 58 primary drew 6,600 voters in a county with 822,515 of them — serves as a reminder that the electorate should encourage candidates to keep their campaigns out of the mud.

Or at least to ask that they keep the hypocrisy to a minimum.

McClure, who's likely to win the Dec. 19 general election, provided weak assurances that he'd speak with those behind the attack ads — the shadowy independent committees who appear, in this case, to be serving the agenda of the current state House leadership rather than the people of eastern Hillsborough County.

Candidates who might start out with altruistic motives of public service can soon develop inflated views of their own worth, compromising their values in the process because they believe the end justifies the means.

This slippery slope, of course, doesn't end with the election process. It carves a rift with the electorate that only grows in office under the influence of the people and agendas behind those shadowy groups.

Every election cycle, including this one, is a time to demand that candidates step out of the shadows and shout down the bad deeds done in their name. They are foolish to think their public service isn't stained by it.

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