A recent Associated Press analysis column suggested that a Kansas candidate for U.S. Congress might gain an advantage with voters by pledging to run a "clean" primary and general election campaign.
The candidate correctly asserts that voters in Kansas and elsewhere in the nation are tired of divisive politics, but defining and adhering to a pledge to run a "clean" campaign is harder than it sounds.
What constitutes a clean campaign? The definition obviously is colored by whose side a partisan voter is on. Certainly, it would be focused more on issues than on personalities. It would refrain from personal attacks and the use of unflattering images. Most of all, it would be a campaign where candidates deal with each other in a respectful way and depend on facts, rather than spin or innuendo, to make their case for re-election.
The candidate promoting the clean campaign pledge specifically suggested that he and his opponent refrain from mentioning each other by name in ads and speeches, which seems like an odd approach. Respectfully mentioning an opponent by name wouldn't be a negative tactic. Conversely, it's certainly easy enough to attack an opponent without calling him or her by name.
Another problem with promising a clean campaign is that a candidate only has to speak for himself or herself. Usually, the most underhanded campaign attacks are engineered by political action committees that technically aren't controlled by the candidates. Such attacks are easy for candidates to disavow.
Unfortunately, the history of our politics shows that no matter how much we decry negative campaigning, the fact is that dirty politics wins races. It's relatively easy to say at this early stage in the race that you want this to be a clean and respectful campaign. As the election draws closer and candidates become more desperate, however, it's much harder to stick by that pledge and not use a negative tactic that could gain the few extra percentage points that could mean victory.
Even if candidates took a pledge to run a clean campaign, their resolve probably would go out the window as soon as they could point to an opponent's unfair attack and say, "He (or she) did it first."
Could a candidate who truly took the high road gain an advantage with voters? Probably so, but actions on the campaign trail will speak much louder than the words of a clean campaign pledge.