Iowans and New Hampshirites are still reeling from the barrage of TV ads trying to convince them to support this candidate or be sure not to support that candidate. Chances are if you talk to someone who lives in Iowa, they’ll be very familiar with the Donald TrumpDonald TrumpConway says she'll talk to Trump about press safety Helen Mirren gives advice for being a ‘nasty woman’ Gingrich goes off on Megyn Kelly over Trump allegations: 'You are fascinated with sex' MORE ad vowing to “cut the head off ISIS.” And if you have a friend in New Hampshire, they’ve undoubtedly seen Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHelen Mirren gives advice for being a ‘nasty woman’ Pence on Trump threats to sue accusers: He's entitled to defend reputation Clinton gets birthday cheer on Hispanic variety show MORE’s ad promising to “keep America safe” multiple times.
It seems as if these ads are all that’s available to watch on TV these days in campaign states – in a recent half hour Saturday evening news segment, Iowans were treated to over a dozen political ads from candidates across the spectrum. And a single candidate and his super PAC subjected New Hampshire voters to more than 3,600 ad airings in December and January alone.
These ads are the evidence of record political spending in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary this election season. A large portion of this spending comes from outside groups with billionaire donors giving unlimited sums – many of them anonymously. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, which has undisclosed donors, has spent $8 million on ads in Iowa alone. In addition to the ads, Super PACs and their billionaire backers have all but taken over the candidates’ campaigns – hiring canvassers, organizing town halls, posting lawn signs, and more.
Paradoxically, the same candidates behind all of these ads claim they don’t like them any more than we do. Just about every presidential candidate in this race has railed against political ads and the system they fit into – a system in which it’s hard to tell who exactly is funding what. Candidates from Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) to Bush have expressed frustration with the status quo, and lamented the amount of time they need to spend chasing donors. And many candidates, including Clinton and Trump, have called for policies to change the influence of money in politics, such as banning super PACs and establishing small donor funding of elections.
Candidates always make a lot of promises on the campaign trail, many of which don’t become policy once they’re in the White House. But with money in politics, they need extra incentive to follow through on their promises, since it’s the very system that worked to put them in office. They need voters to speak up and hold them strongly accountable during the election season.
Fortunately, voters across the political spectrum in Iowa and New Hampshire are taking up this challenge. We saw Clinton’s concession speech begin with a pledge to fight for “aggressive campaign finance reform” to match what Sanders has made a cornerstone of his campaign, and Trump continued his criticism of special interests and super PACs in his victory speech.
It’s no coincidence that the candidates from each party most aggressively criticizing the growing influence of money in our elections are leading or toward the very top in the polls—they know it’s a winning political issue. As the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary pass, it’s clearer than ever that every candidate needs to take a concrete stance on money’s influence in politics if they plan to win.
Activists and voters with Iowa Pays the Price and New Hampshire Rebellion have been pushing candidates for months to commit to a series of solutions to address this issue, and we’re only going to ramp up the pressure with rallies, marches, and the first-ever We the People Convention in a massive heated tent on Primary Weekend in New Hampshire. Our groups are sending the message to candidates that America is fed up with how money works in politics, and tens of thousands of voters are going to make sure they follow through on their promises.
Folks taking action in our states come from all across the political spectrum, with different reasons for worrying about money in politics. Take Marlon Mormann, a 53-year-old Republican from East Des Moines, who’s concerned about special interest donations leading to favors and a bloated federal government. Or Beth Gruenwald, a college student from Merrimack, N.H. who worries that the student loan industry will saddle her with overwhelming debt by the time she graduates. Or there’s Emily Erickson and Cory Boutin, a young New Hampshire couple who own a bakery and are getting politically active for the first time because of this issue.
These voters are clamoring for common sense solutions – not more talk and commiseration from candidates. If candidates want to connect with voters, they need to stop protecting entrenched interests and commit to making reducing the influence of money in politics a priority in their first 100 days in office. They must commit to requiring full transparency, overturning Citizens United, establishing small-donor funded elections, enforcing campaign finance laws, and banning campaign contributions from lobbyists and government contractors.
It might be too late to get rid of political ads before Election Day this November. But just imagine we could have an election in the not-too-distant future without them. By shifting candidates’ allegiances from super PACs and billionaires to their everyday constituents, voters can change the status quo. It starts with each of us demanding that these candidates listen.
Anderson is co-chair of Iowa Pays the Price, and Weeks is executive director of New Hampshire Rebellion.