Washington, October 28 : The perception that politicians never keep their promises may require reconsideration, for a study has revealed that political candidates' words in their campaign ads generally match their deeds.
Tracy Sulkin, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, compared the campaign ads and legislative records of recent congressional officeholders, and observed that the candidates' words generally matched their deeds.
She said that the issues, which the candidates said were priorities in their commercials, were likely ones that they cared about and would take action on through the introduction and co-sponsoring of legislation.
Whether they were vague or specific on an issue did not matter, she found.
"There turn out to be no differences in subsequent activity among people who just say they care about an issue and people who lay out a specific plan. ... Specificity, which we seem overly concerned about, isn't actually a signal that you care more about the issue," she said.
Sulkin instead said what drove candidates to be more specific on issues was the closeness of the race.
Her research, however, showed that when a candidate attacked an opponent on a given issue, it did not mean the attacking candidate cared about that issue or would act on it.
"Negative appeals, appeals that attack the opponent, don't have much signaling power about what that candidate is going to do," she said.
Sulkin also said that being in a "safe" seat, apparently free from challenge by a candidate from the other party, did not seem to produce unresponsive legislators who feel free to do whatever they want.
"One of the things that jumps out of these findings is that if we compare relatively safe people to relatively vulnerable people, the relatively safe people actually seem to follow through on their promises more than the relatively vulnerable people," she said.
For her research, Sulkin drew from campaign advertising material collected by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project on the 1998, 2000 and 2002 elections. She had access to storyboards for all political ads run in the top 75 media markets for the 1998 and 2000 elections, and in the top 100 media markets for the 2002 election.
The research covered ads for 391 winning candidates for the U.S. House, and 84 winning candidates for the U.S. Senate over the three election years.
"We know all the ads they aired. We had a full picture of what their advertising strategies looked like in their televised ads," Sulkin said.
She and her colleagues coded the ads for what they said and how they said it on 18 different issues, and later sought out information on the bills that those legislators introduced and co-sponsored during the terms that followed and applied the same coding on the same 18 issues.
The researchers later compared what legislators had said about those issues in their campaigns to what they had done in Congress.
The study has been published in the Journal of Politics.