Candidates should regain control of ad spending


The attack ad is the defining feature of present-day elections.

This is no way to run a democracy. We do need candidates to offer competing visions and distinguish themselves from their opponents. But that’s not what attack ads are about. They are about caricature and character assassination. They elevate trivia over policy. They mislead and misinform.

Voters perceive a sharp increase in attack ads. They are right. The reason? A dramatic rise in the amount of election spending by outside organizations, not formally connected to candidate campaigns — a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided 2010 ruling in Citizens United.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

During the 2012 U.S. Senate battle between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown, the two candidates signed the “People’s Pledge” to stem the flow of outside money into that election. Under the terms of the novel agreement, each candidate told outside groups: Stay out. If an outside group purchased any broadcast or online ads, the candidate the ads were designed to help would have to make an offsetting donation to a charity of the opposing candidate’s choice.

The pledge worked. Brown ended up making two small donations, but outside groups stayed out. There was a far lower percentage of negative ads, and the candidates were able to control their message and spend more time talking to voters about issues they cared about.

Although the Massachusetts race was the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, its character was very different than closely contested races throughout the rest of the country, where outside spending defined the election landscape.

Election spending by outside groups in 2012 began to rival the amount spent by parties. In four of the 10 most expensive U.S. Senate races in 2012, outside groups outspent the candidates, something that has occurred once in the previous three election cycles. Further, outside groups spent 84 percent as much as the national parties in 2012, more than double the percentage in any recent election.

Altogether, outside groups in 2012 spent $1 billion in 2012 on federal elections — exceeding total outside spending for the previous four election cycles combined. The vast majority of this outside spending was devoted to attack ads: More than 85 percent of expenditures made by the 15 largest outside groups in the 2012 election cycle financed negative messages.

This election year is on track to outdistance anything we’ve seen yet. The number of television ads paid for by outside groups is nearly six times what it was at this point in the 2010 midterm election, according to a New York Times analysis.

Candidates have the opportunity to regain control of ads in their election contests through a voluntary agreement to reject outside spending.

Successful candidates in the 2012 Maine U.S. Senate race, 2013 Massachusetts U.S. Senate race, and the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral race proposed rejecting outside spending and gained public support for doing so. There has been prominent public discussion about the idea in 2014 races across the country.

As we approach the intense campaign season, it’s now time for the candidates to negotiate joint agreements to end outside spending. The candidates share our interest as voters in more civil, serious and informative campaigns, where it’s the candidates — not shadowy, unaccountable, outside organizations — who establish the tone and tenor of our elections.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that seeks to curb the influence of money in politics. Jay Bookman’s column will return soon.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Are America’s wars just and moral?

“One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies,” writes columnist David Ignatius. Given that Syria’s prewar population was not 10 percent of ours, this is the equivalent of a million dead and wounded Americans. What justifies America’s participation...
Readers Write: July 28

Republicans just don’t know how to govern The Republican party has the House, the Senate and the presidency. They have had almost eight years of complaining and threatening to do something about the Affordable Care Act. Yet, in all that time, they have obviously not spent much time or effort on putting together a reasonable alternative. The Senate...
Opinion: The speech Trump should have given to the Boy Scouts
Opinion: The speech Trump should have given to the Boy Scouts

President Donald Trump at the Boy Scouts of America’s 2017 National Scout Jamboree in Glen Jean, W.Va., July 24. (Doug Mills / The New York Times) Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. I am thrilled to be here. Thrilled. And if you think that was an easy trip, you’re wrong. But I am thrilled. Nineteenth Boy...
Opinion: Jared Kushner needs to find another job

For all that we don’t know about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia, one thing should now be clear: Jared Kushner should not be working in the White House, and he should not have a security clearance. True, no proof has been presented that Kushner broke the law or plotted with Russia to interfere in the U.S. election. But he&rsquo...
Opinion: What Trump should have told the Boy Scouts

Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. I am thrilled to be here. Thrilled. And if you think that was an easy trip, you’re wrong. But I am thrilled. Nineteenth Boy Scout Jamboree, wow, and to address such a tremendous group. Boy, you have a lot of people here. The press will say it’s about 200 people. It looks like about 45,000 people...
More Stories