The political campaign that could have been

The vast majority of voters say they hate negative ads, and their hatred does not stop there

In New Hampshire, we are not strangers to expensive and hotly contested political campaigns. Politics is said to be our state sport. Like another New Hampshire favorite, ice hockey, it is fast-paced and full-contact.

But this year’s contest between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown – the most expensive in state history – set a new and distressing low. The sentiment was captured by ABC’s title for the recent senatorial debate on WMUR: “Fight Night in New Hampshire.” Fight year is more like it.

Fully nine out of 10 of the thousands of TV ads aired in the Senate race in the weeks leading up to the election were negative, giving New Hampshire the dubious distinction of having the most negative Senate contest in the country. And the rest of New Hampshire’s races are not far behind.

The effect on the general public is negative, too.

The vast majority of voters say they hate negative ads, and their hatred does not stop there. When campaigns devolve into mudslinging, voters transfer their disgust to politics itself. Feeling powerless to change the tenor of debate, they disengage from the democratic process.

Although the candidates are hardly innocent themselves, major responsibility for New Hampshire’s downward spiral in this campaign goes to the “independent” spenders.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that more than $29 million was spent by outside groups in the New Hampshire Senate race. Only $5 million came from the parties. Most of the spenders are so-called “social welfare organizations” located outside New Hampshire and considered tax exempt by the IRS. A majority of their dollars spent are undisclosed.

With little, if any, accountability and hardly a stake in New Hampshire’s way of life, these groups proceed to slash and burn their way to electoral victory. Is it any surprise that nine in 10 Americans believe corporate money holds excessive influence in politics or that eight in 10 Americans support limits on the amount of money given to outside groups?

It did not have to be this way.

Earlier this year, when Brown entered the race, there was an opportunity for New Hampshire to set a different tone. Inspired by the 2012 Massachusetts race between then-senator Brown and Elizabeth Warren, Shaheen invited her opponent to take the People’s Pledge.

The concept was elegantly simple, if hardly a complete solution to the campaign finance morass in which we find ourselves. Both candidates would swear off any outside spending in support of their campaigns. If groups went ahead and entered the fray, the benefiting candidates would donate the amount of money spent on their behalf to a charity of their opponent’s choice. Hardly a strict legal barrier to negative and unaccountable spending, but a powerful disincentive nonetheless.

In the Massachusetts race, the arrangement worked surprisingly well. Outside spending dried up. Most of the negative attacks were kept at bay. The candidates had a relatively genuine, if fierce, debate.

Although a People’s Pledge alone cannot solve the structural woes of money and politics, it could have stopped the bleeding of rampant public cynicism in our democracy. Until the bleeding stops, there is little hope that our leaders will be able to come together to pass systemic reform of our campaign finance laws, or address the range of other pressing problems we face.

Let’s hope the upcoming presidential primaries take a different turn.

Daniel Weeks is executive director of Open Democracy, a New Hampshire-based, nonpartisan organization.

Categories: Opinion