Why All This Political Cynicism?

So the election is over and you did your duty. Now, will your favorite candidate follow through on those campaign promises?

Surprisingly, yes, according to a three-year study of the results of three Congressional campaigns by a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Champaign.

"The idea that campaigns are just cheap talk, and people will say what it takes to win but aren't actually interested in keeping their promises, just seems to be wrong," said Tracy Sulkin, who conducted the exhaustive study with the help of an army of assistants.

She said the widespread belief that politicians routinely ignore their promises once they are elected "seems rooted more in voters' cynicism about politics than in reality."

Not convinced? You've got a lot of company. A 1988 ABC/Washington Post poll found that 71 percent agreed that "most members of Congress make campaign promises that they have no intention of fulfilling," and several other polls during the years have reported similar findings.

The researchers studied campaign advertisements for 391 winning candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and 84 winning candidates for the U.S. Senate from elections in 1998, 2000 and 2002. The ads were collected earlier by other institutions, including the University of Wisconsin and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Sulkin and her team sorted through the scripts, or "story boards," for more than 1,400 ads that aired in 43 states to see what the candidates promised on any of 18 different issues. Then they looked at the congressional records of the winning candidates to see if they kept those promises. Promises by presidential candidates were not included in the study.

Words Really Do Lead to Action

"Basically, we found that when candidates talk about an issue in their campaigns, it's sincere," Sulkin said. "If they talk about an issue, we're probably correct in assuming that the issue is a priority for them."

Common sense, perhaps. Why would a politician spend money and time raising an issue that wasn't of personal interest? But how do you measure the level of their activity after the election?

Did the winners introduce legislation, or co-sponsor legislation, addressing the issue? Were they more active than politicians who had not mentioned the same issue? The answer to each, Sulkin said, is "yes."

"People who talked about the issue [in their ads] were significantly more active in Congress than those who didn't talk about the issue," she said in an interview.

Candidates who discuss health, the environment and civil rights, for example, authored or co-sponsored five to seven more bills on those issues than candidates who didn't discuss them in their ads.

Interestingly, even a vague reference to a particular issue (like "I'm in favor of education") was followed by "robust" activity by the politician while in office. Those who talked about an issue, even if they weren't passionate about it, were much more likely to follow up than those who didn't mention the issue.

The conclusions were based on legislation that was introduced or co-sponsored by the politician because that is a more reliable indicator of the level of activity than the voting record, Sulkin said. A vote is not always clear in its intent. A vote either for or against "No Child Left Behind," for example, could be seen as pro-education.

And there never is a vote on most bills. Only a relative few actually reach the full body of the House or the Senate, so introducing or co-sponsoring a bill is better evidence, Sulkin said.

Why the Bum Rap?

But are politicians really getting a bum rap and, if so, why all this cynicism? That may be partly the fault of the politicians themselves.

"Part of it is the candidates accuse each other of not keeping promises," she said. "You hear that as a common critique."

And if you hear it often enough, it must be true, right?

It's probably safe to say that most campaign promises are never fully met. Once in office, it's not easy for one congressperson, or one senator, to sway fellow politicians. Even good intentions may not lead to fruitful results.

And times change. Remember when the big issue in this country was the war in Iraq? Seems like just yesterday, before we felt somebody tugging at our wallets. Voters, Sulkin noted, want to see results, something concrete to show that a promise was kept, and that isn't always possible.

Unfortunately, some politicians promote dreams that they surely must know will not come true. It may be a popular issue with the folks back home, but not all the campaign contributors are going to get a tax break, or a new highway, or a raise in entitlements.

But, according to Sulkin, even if the goal is unrealistic, the issue will be much more likely to be pursued by officeholders who mentioned it, than by those who didn't.

What they say in their ads, she added, is a good predictor of what they are likely to do, or at least try to do, if elected.

By the way, want to know the two issues that were the least mentioned in all those ads? Children's issues, and civil rights.

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