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Keeping out of the mud is harder than the NPA would have you believe

Kirk LaPointe signed a pledge last week promising to refrain from personal attacks or “undignified criticism” of opponents and stick to the issues.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Politicians in Israel, Indonesia and Illinois have all promised the same recently – to run clean campaigns free of personal attacks on their opponents.

They're part of a tradition so embedded in political strategy that even the fictional Republican candidate in the early episodes of the TV series The West Wing promised to run a clean campaign.

So what Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association and Kirk LaPointe did, with a showy ceremony last week where everyone signed a pledge promising to refrain from personal attacks or "undignified criticism" of opponents and stick to the issues, wasn't new.

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But political analysts say those kinds of pledges are hard to hold onto, as campaigns heat up. Much as regular voters say they prefer clean campaigns, the reality every campaigner knows is that negative campaigns can be effective.

"People are seeing that campaigns have become very ugly and personal and they want relief from that," says Dennis Pilon, a political-science professor at Toronto's York University who has studied B.C. politics and is currently writing a history of former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier Gordon Campbell. "But negative framing works, unless it's too far-fetched."

And, analysts say, pledges like this one are more likely to be taken by newcomers – who have more to lose by the sudden eruption of negative personal information – than by politicians who have been in power for a while and become familiar to the public.

"A 'clean campaign' might be a sensible approach when your opponent is not vulnerable," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and its affiliated Rose Institute of State and Local Government.

Voters have shown a remarkable tolerance in recent years for misbehaviour by politicians they have come to know. Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his team have been in power for six years – plenty of time for the public to get a picture of their strengths and failings – whereas many on Mr. LaPointe's team are fresh to the scene, including Mr. LaPointe himself.

Rookies are often knocked out by revelations of small indiscretions, because that negative personal information can end up becoming the only thing the public knows about the new contender.

So, says Mr. Pilon, "maybe LaPointe is just giving up something that isn't going to gain him anything anyway."

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Another California analyst also notes that codes of campaign conduct these days typically don't just limit themselves to bans on personal attacks.

The California code, a state-developed policy that candidates are encouraged to endorse, also spells out that politicians trying to run clean campaigns shouldn't misrepresent their opponents (for example, by making it sound as though they're against something because of a long-ago statement or minor vote), should give their opponents a chance to respond to criticisms, and should present their own positions honestly.

Hana Callaghan, director of the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said the public does appreciate clean campaigns.

But voters will listen to and take into account "negative" information if it's relevant to the issues and truthful.

A California survey done by the Institute for Local Government showed the public cares about politicians' voting records, how they ran their businesses and whether they took contributions from special-interest groups. They don't care that much about a candidate's troubles with alcohol or marijuana, their personal financial problems, their marital infidelities or the indiscretions of family members.

Vancouver civic elections, like those elsewhere, have had their share of outbreaks of negative personal information that became the news. In 2008, when Mr. Robertson first ran for mayor, there was a whole week of stories generated from information that appeared mysteriously mid-campaign about the fact that he had been ticketed for riding two zones on SkyTrain with a one-zone ticket.

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In 2011, an NPA candidate was flayed over a rating system for potential dates that he had developed while at Langara College.

In this year's campaign, the mayor's separation from his wife, a humorous video by one Vision park-board candidate about masturbation, and an editorial that Mr. LaPointe wrote 15 years ago about why his paper didn't run a picture of two men kissing have already generated stories and debates about irrelevant and negative personal attacks.

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