For years we’ve been told the reason there are so many negative campaign attack ads is simple — because they work. That makes sense when candidates and campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars on such ads, mostly 30-second television commercials. If they didn’t work, why waste all that money?
But now we’re faced with a darker and more sinister explanation, thanks to research conducted by the Ohio Media Project. It’s a consortium of radio and television stations and the largest newspapers in the state, including the Post-Gazette’s sister paper, The Blade of Toledo.
The group, with the help of the Jefferson Center, a Minnesota-based nonpartisan civic engagement group, the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that such ads are designed to suppress voter turnout as much as they are to persuade voters to support one candidate over another.
Researchers found that only about 1 percent of voters, primarily independents, are moved from one camp to another because of negative ads, but in swing states, like Ohio, sometimes elections are decided by 1 percent or less. But the researchers also found that, “especially with moderate voters, you get a demobilization effect, where they just kind of turn off, ‘This is a nasty campaign, I just want to stay home.’ ”
That is truly sinister and profoundly anti-democratic.
Equally disturbing as the attack ads and their intent is the answer to this question. Who is paying for this garbage? In the 2012 presidential election, independent spending — by groups not connected with either political party — came to $424.4 million supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and $145 million supporting Democratic President Barack Obama.
The sources of that money, often called “dark money,” are being kept secret, and that is wrong.
Because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, and a series of regulations by the FEC and the Internal Revenue Service, millionaires and billionaires can donate as much cash as they want to independent groups such as super political action committees and never worry about their names or a dollar amount being entered on the public record. The court ruled that spending money on a candidate is a form of free speech, so it can’t be regulated. But even if you accept the notion that money is speech, there is no justification for the lack of transparency. Secret speech is not speech.
The super PAC Americans for Prosperity is a good example. Look up its 2012 expenditures in opensecrets.org and the only line that comes up is: $33,542,051 spent against President Obama’s re-election.
The Center for Responsive Politics identified AFP’s biggest contributor as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is controlled by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. But the FEC did not require this disclosure.
In January, Charles Koch held a meeting with 500 supporters at his California estate, telling reporters, “This isn’t some secret cabal. We have ideas that will make America better.”
It’s true Mr. Koch has ideas about how America should be run. That’s not the point. The tens of millions of dollars he’s decided to spend to elect a politician to implement those ideas is the point. That is not a secret he should be allowed to keep from the public.
From the mid-1970s to 2010 there was near total consensus in this nation on at least one principle: full disclosure and transparency. We ought to know where the money is coming from and where it is going.
Democracy needs light. When power is exercised in the shadows, motives and ends are usually being hidden and the common good is usually being betrayed.