Why We Miss the People’s Pledge

Why We Miss the People's Pledge

Massachusetts voters will cast their ballots in the U.S. Senate Special Election tomorrow. Before the results are in, let’s focus on the process that has led up to the election. One thing is glaringly clear: it was less democratic than the Bay State’s last U.S. Senate race.

With a new Super PAC named “Americans for Progressive Action” dropping $700,000 on an ad-buy for Gabriel Gomez last week” and then another one a few days later” the absence of a “People’s Pledge” for the special election has had clear consequences. In addition to pro-Gomez advertisements and a strong digital campaign, the new Super PAC, funded entirely by California CEO John Jordan, has released a number of negative ads. These are only the latest addition to a slew of negative messages from both candidates that has tainted this race. Behind this unproductive and often misleading negativity lies enormous and largely unregulated outside spending.

On the other side, a SuperPAC called “Next Gen” launched an ad campaign both supporting Markey and opposing Gomez, spending $1 million to help ensure Markey’s election. Like Americans for Progressive Action, Next Gen is funded entirely by one man: California billionaire Thomas Steyer. After Citizens United, super spenders like Jordan and Steyer have undue electoral influence without a People’s Pledge.

The People’s Pledge made headlines last year when Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown decided to minimize outside spending, agreeing to impose a fine on candidates for whom outside sources bought advertisements. The hotly contested and pivotal race, which ended up being the most expensive in the country, only accounted for 2% of outside spending nationwide. Strictly regulated individual contributions comprised the vast majority of campaign spending, making candidates advocate for themselves rather than leaving it to their less accountable SuperPAC surrogates.

This year, the Pledge has been sorely missed. The candidates have been unwilling to come to a similar agreement, and it is the voters who are paying the price. Total spending in the Markey/Gomez race so far may seem relatively low compared to the 2012 race, which is due in large part to the fact that the Gomez and Markey announced their candidacy much later than Warren and Brown had. But the sources of money are troubling. Outside groups have spent over $7 million, accounting for 39% of all spending in the race (although the last reported campaign spending figures come from June 5th). This is a disturbing jump from the mere 9% in the Warren-Brown race.

PACs and Super PACs have dictated a large chunk of campaign spending, accounting for over 80% of outside money and a quarter of the total spending in the election so far (again, using campaign expenditure figures though June 5th). Negativity has dominated the race” a stark contrast to last years Senate race in Massachusetts, in which only 34% of ads were negative and not a single television ad was run by an outside group. Small donor contributions, which comprised a third of campaign donations in the Brown-Warren race, have proven insignificant, stifled by the enormous outside support. And as a result, the special election for the Massachusetts seat has been dominated by big money.

When we look at the results of the People’s Pledge last year, it’s hard to argue against its success. Small contributions from a wide variety of donors outmatched outside donations 3:1 (a refreshing fact, consider that in other pivotal 2012 elections, large donations to outside groups prevailed, accounting for more than 5 times the contributions of small donors). The benefits did not end there. The 2012 election also saw fantastic progress in disclosing donor information, with completely undisclosed, “dark” money comprising only 4% of overall election spending. The number is refreshingly low when compared to other tight races around the country, in which dark money made up an average of 20% of overall expenditures.

Clearly, the People’s Pledge was successful, and the past few months have served to put it in perspective. There is every reason for such a pledge to regulate Massachusetts elections from now on” and if popular support is strong enough, it will.