Changing the tone

In the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Scott Brown (the Republican incumbent) and Elizabeth Warren (the challenging Democrat) came to an agreement on a mechanism for discouraging ads funded by outside organizations. The agreement became known as the "People's Pledge."

Why did these candidates make such an agreement?

In part, they did so because they knew that when a flood of outside money comes in, candidates lose control of the messages of their own campaigns. When outside election spenders like super-PACs and trade groups come in and "go negative" with their ad buys, voters watching the outside-funded ads tend to blame the candidates for "mudslinging," not realizing that the spending wasn't at the candidate's directive.

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The benefits from a voter's perspective, if candidates agree to keep outside money out, are even more meaningful. The dark outside money in 2012 was unprecedented, and this year the flood will be even greater. An agreement like the one taken by Brown and Warren can make a difference. The pledge worked in Massachusetts, reducing by 93 percent the outside spending in the race when compared to equally competitive 2012 Senate races in other states.

In addition, the type of money spent in the Massachusetts race changed for the better, with small donations (which more accurately reflect public support) outmatching outside group spending by three to one, while in contrast, other contested races were flooded with outside big dollar spending. By taking outside money out of the race, the agreement ensured that more of the money being used comes from voters.

Another benefit is that more of the spending is transparent, as money donated directly to candidates and parties is subject to disclosure rules.

Beyond the changes in the volume, small donor participation, and disclosure, voters also see what one might call a "positivity benefit" when candidates keep the outside money out. The deregulation of outside spending following the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision led to a steep increase in spending on the negative advertising that so many Americans find utterly unpalatable. The top 15 organizations making independent expenditures spent more than $600 million in the 2012 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Public Citizen did an analysis that found that of that spending, more than $520 million, or almost 86 percent, was spent opposing a specific candidate for office, or in other words, on the negative attack ads that are so abhorrent to most citizens.

The Brown-Warren type of agreement makes a difference when it comes to this tone problem. At the conclusion of the Brown-Warren race, Common Cause took a close look at the numbers and found that Massachusetts had half the negative advertising that comparable U.S. Senate races in Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia had. In those other hot-button races, 97 percent of the ads run by outside groups in those states were negative.

Poll after poll shows that the public is sick of this sort of spending and the associated negative civic tone, and would like a more civil discourse. In today's contentious political climate, the one group less popular than members of Congress themselves are the "Big Money Campaign Donors" that help them win elections, with 72 percent viewing them unfavorably and 51 percent "very" unfavorably, according to a recent Lake Research Partners poll. Blocking the big, outside moneyed interests from their campaigns is one thing candidates can do to show they agree with the majority of the public on this.

We need a tone change in our political process, and agreements like the one Brown and Warren took are a key first step to doing so. We hope others follow suit.

Gilbert is director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.

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