The one sure thing you can take from the primary season is that you should not listen to anything candidates are saying, especially not in commercials or ads. Sometimes what a candidate says can serve as an important measure of what they will be like in office but campaigning is all public relations – it’s all advertising. Like all advertising, it should be viewed skeptically. What candidates say might be truthful; in fact, a large part of what they say is truthful. However, what candidates say about one another is less likely to be completely truthful.
Very few people would run a campaign saying, “My opponent is a wonderful person. She is completely prepared for the job and has demonstrated good choices in the past. I may not agree with some of her policies and views but we’re all entitled to our own opinions.” I probably would but then again I’m not in politics, never will be in politics, and if I somehow happened to decide to try to be in politics, I probably would not get elected. There are some politicians who say very little about their opponent(s) but the closer we move towards the general election in November the more negative campaigning we hear. Negative campaigning is very effective; it causes people to doubt the other candidate, even if they say they do not like negative campaigning. If you are going to listen to what a candidate says while campaigning, then at least only listen and believe what a candidate say about him or herself and not about any opponents.
Take for example, Barack Obama. He is considered one of the most liberal Senators. However, he campaigns as a moderate. Maybe he has had a change of heart and maybe he hasn’t. John McCain, while fairly moderate with a definite conservative lean, has been campaigning as more conservative than his voting history shows. Maybe he has had a change of heart and maybe he hasn’t. I don’t believe that candidates are largely being dishonest as they campaign but there are some times that they intentionally mislead others. Good speakers learn how to speak to the audience. You say very different things to doctors and professors than you do to fast food workers. If you use big words with the fast food workers, they might just view you as an elitist. If you don’t adapt your language for a highly educated crowd, then you might be viewed as unintelligent or worse. You also campaign to your markets. Ads in the South are likely different than ads in the Northeast.
It’s also difficult to believe what the media reports. Quotes are taken out of context, molehills are made into mountains, and the real issues are often ignored. Modern media is a business – they need to make money so they focus on the stories they think will sell. I don’t think they are purposely or generally being deceptive with their stories but reporters have their own biases and they need to sell stories. The internet provides a medium for more truthful reporting and more complete coverage of campaigns but it also introduces all sorts of other problems. Non-truths can spread like wildfire. Bloggers can be extremely biased and there are no standards to help monitor and control what bloggers are saying (whether or not there should be is a whole different topic).
If you want to understand a candidate you need to look at their webpage and look at their history in politics or life. You can learn some from what they say while campaigning but most of what they say is advertising – they are selling their platform. How they sell can be important information but what they’ve done (and said) before campaigning is likely more pertinent.