A real November surprise

Here’s a November surprise: what pols promise during campaigns really tends to guide what they do once elected.

Political candidates, at least those elected to Congress in recent years, do at least try to follow up on most of the priorities they claim in their campaign ads, according to a new study by an Illinois political scientist.

Tracy Sulkin, a professor of political science and communications at the University of Illinois, compared the words to legislative deeds for 391 winning House candidates and 84 winning Senate candidates during and after elections of 1998, 2000 and 2002.

Generally, what a candidate said they’d do in the next Congress, they did, at least to the extent of introducing or co-sponsoring legislation related to the issues they highlighted in broadcast ads.

The exception, Sulkin found, were issues mentioned in attack ads. "Negative appeals, appeals that attack the opponent, don’t have much signaling power about what the candidate is going to do,” she said.

The research started with a database of campaign advertising material collected by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project and the Campaign Media Analysis Group — a collection of ad storyboards from the media markets covering about three quarters of congressional districts nationwide.

Then Sulkin and her assistants coded the ads for what they said and how they said it on 18 different issues. Then they crosschecked those 18 issues against the bills that each representative or senator wrote or co-sponsored during the following session of Congress.

Sulkin said she looked at legislation introduced, rather than what passed or how a member voted on issues, because she felt that better represented legislators’ initiative on issues, even though most never come to a vote and even fewer become law.

Admittedly, many of the legislative proposals may have been policy clunkers. But Sulkin figures any effort should count. "You can’t really separate out whether a vote improved education, for instance, but you can look at whether somebody who said they wanted to improve education actually went to Congress and worked on the issue."

Sulkin’s research also knocked back the notion that politicians elected to seats by narrow margins feel more pressure to produce results.

"When we compared relatively safe people to relatively vulnerable people, the relatively safe people actually seem to follow through on their promises more than the vulnerable people," said Sulkin, who is writing a book about the study and described some of the research earlier this year in the Journal of Politics.

E-mail Lee Bowman at bowmanl(at)shns.com.