Bob Schieffer on a Frightening Campaign Season

"People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook," said President Rich Nixon in November 1973.

Remember when politicians thought that's all they had to promise?

That was then, and this is now.

"I'm not a witch - I'm you," says Del. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in one ad.

In an election season so weird it's been Halloween-scary, no wonder this has been the most talked about commercial.

And boy, with people angry and the economy in the dump, the commercials this year have been, well, how about the one with demon sheep?

But here's the really scary part: The cost for TV commercials alone will run a record $3 billion this year.

Be honest now: Do you feel we're getting out money's worth?

Worth it or not, this year most of the power players aren't working in D.C. but in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign.

"The way we look at an ad is, if you don't see it, why bother making it? Why bother spending millions of dollars to put it on the air?" says Fred Davis.

He may work for Republicans, but he's anything but conservative in his approach - the demon sheep and the Barbara Boxer balloon and Christine O'Donnell's witch ad were his work.

In tough times, he says there's really no place for subtlety.

"If you come to us, you're probably not gonna expect a rubber stamp, normal political ad," Davis said. "So to start with, the fact that you're here in this office probably means you're willing to push the boundaries a little bit."

The commercials have been no more unusual this year than some of the candidates. Not surprising, says William Galson of the Brookings Institution.

"Why do you think there are so many characters running for office this year?' Schieffer asked.

"These are very unsettled times," Galson said. "And throughout American history, hard times have brought forth political candidates and movements that are outside what's broadly considered to be the mainstream. And this time is no exception."

From the pre-Civil War Know-Nothing Party, to Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth" movement during the Great Depression, an uncertain economy invariably results in an uncertain political landscape.

This year, that's meant bad news for the Democrats - although some in the new crop of Republicans are giving Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine a reason to smile:

"The Tea Party has enabled candidates to win that are way outside the mainstream," Kaine said. "And so while I'm not predicting numbers on the outcome Tuesday, I will say this: We will win seats. I feel confident. We will win seats that we would not have won without the Tea Party."

"'Course, you are the chairman of the Democratic Party, so I don't guess you'd see any extremists on the other side," Schieffer laughed.

For sure, it seems as if this campaign season has rattled nerves in both parties.

Schieffer asked Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, "What about the Tea Party? Did that give you a little scare? Suddenly, along comes this group of people that don't seem to care too much for the establishment."

"They don't. And they're shaking up the Republican Party," Gillespie said.

Gillsepie is a former chairman of the Republican Party and a key strategist this year, and even he is taking nothing for granted.

"It creates growing pains," he said. "But growing pains are better than shrinking pains."

And nobody is feeling more pain this year than incumbents: With just days to go, a CBS News poll finds that 8 in 10 disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and think it's time for new blood.

Which leads to the scariest question of them all: Whoever takes control, can the two sides find some way to work together?

William Galston says, they better!

"The fact that the American political system is having a hard time getting things done doesn't mean that the world is standing still," he said. "And even more, time is not clearly on America's side the way it used to be. The more time we spend mired in gridlock, yelling at each other, the farther ahead our competitors can get."

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    Bob Schieffer is a CBS News political contributor and former anchor of "Face The Nation," which he moderated for 24 years before retiring in 2015.