Over the past week the Boston Globe and other news outlets have reported on negative and deceptive campaign mailers funded by independent political organizations in the Boston mayoral election (here). Negative advertising from political organizations not directly affiliated with a particular candidate should come as no surprise.
As Common Cause Massachusetts' report on 2012 U.S. Senate elections found, outside political groups are much more likely to engage in negative and deceptive campaigning. The report compared the Massachusetts Senate race, which had fairly minimal outside spending as a result of the Elizabeth Warren-Scott Brown "People's Pledge," to Senate races in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio, which saw similar amounts of total election spending, but considerably more outside spending.
The effects of increased outside group spending on negative advertising were stark. Television advertisements in Senate races in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio were more than twice as likely to be negative as compared to Massachusetts -- 84% vs. 36% negative on average. In fact, 97% of television advertising paid for by outside groups in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio was negative.
The reason is simple. When candidates launch negative ads, they must stand by their ad. They may succeed in lowering their opponents' favorability, but they must also suffer any public backlash against their own. The same does not hold true for outside groups.
And negative advertising is only one of the issues with current outside group election activity. The report also found that they dramatically decrease public disclosure of political donors and dramatically increase the electoral influence of big dollar donations over small donations. None of that benefits a functioning democracy.
As collective stewards of representative democracy, we all must decide: Is this really what we want our elections to look like?
If not, it's high time to continue building support for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would once again allow us to rethink the role that outside groups play in our elections and to continue to beat the drum for state and national disclosure measures to fix some of our problems in the meantime.
Office: Common Cause Massachusetts