The People’s Pledge and Positivity in a Post-Citizens United World

Publish:  Jan 10, 2013

by Karyn Bruggeman

With another U.S. Senate election looming in Massachusetts, voters in the Bay State are bracing themselves for an onslaught of political ads fresh off the heels of last year’s competitive U.S. Senate race between Republican Senator Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. During the upcoming special election, however, the absence of another People’s Pledge* could open the floodgates to outside media spending that was effectively banned by Brown and Warren in 2012. (*For a full explanation of how the Pledge worked, see the end of this post.)

After the 2012 cycle, many people are questioning what can be done to reduce the negativity that has come to define political campaigns, and what can be done to increase civility in politics. Using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) one key takeaway from 2012 is that the People’s Pledge had a marked impact on the tone of the race in Massachusetts. Fewer outside ads meant that there were fewer negative ads, and the tone of the race overall remained positive until much later in the cycle. When the race did go negative, the candidates only had to respond directly to each other, not to the anonymous negative attacks of third party groups and PACs. It placed a degree of accountability and respectability in the campaign that was unparalleled in any other race throughout the cycle. In the post Citizens United world, this is a fairly significant accomplishment.

To see the effect the Pledge had on the tone of broadcast ads in Massachusetts in 2012, it’s useful to compare it to races that shared a similar dynamic; races where a similar Pledge could have feasibly been replicated, where:

  1. Neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate faced a serious primary challenger, and the candidates were in a protracted fight against a single opponent.
  2. There was a heavy volume of broadcast media spending, and over 30,000 broadcast television spots were aired in the race between January 1 and October 27, 2012 (the final date for which CMAG data is available).
  3. It was competitive until the final days of the race, and the margin of victory between the two candidates on Election Day was less than 10 percentage points.


This narrows down the comparable list of 2012 U.S. Senate races to those in Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, and Virginia.

According to CMAG, in 2012, of the 47,181  total broadcast spots run by Brown and Warren between January 1 and October 27, 2012, 64.2% of all spots were positive, and just 35.8% were negative. The ratio of positive to negative spots aired by candidates, outside groups, and overall in the Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Ohio, Virginia, and Massachusetts Senate races can be seen in the charts below, in which it is clear that the negativity of the outside ads dragged down the overall tone.

The chart below takes the overall tone column from each of these charts and puts them together, making the majority positive nature of the ads run in Massachusetts especially clear compared to those in other races.

The notable exceptions here are Virginia and North Dakota, where the percent of positive to negative spots run by the candidates themselves was similar to in Massachusetts, at 64.3% positive and 35.7% negative in Virginia, and 55.2% positive and 44.8% negative in North Dakota. But this positivity was drowned out by a flood of negative outside ads. Tim Kaine and his campaign team correctly believed that positive ads could break through the clutter in Virginia, and have spoken to the conscious decision they made to stick to positive messaging and the impact they believe it had on the outcome of the race.

Democratic strategist and Kaine advisor Mo Elleithee elaborated on this strategy in an op-ed in Politico called “How Tim Kaine survived a spending onslaught,” published in November 2012. Then Senator-elect Kaine also spoke about how he “banked that Virginians would reject negative ads” in a post-election interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe that aired on November 7, 2012 (Clip begins at 7:10).

The absence of outside advertising in the Massachusetts Senate race also significantly delayed the airing of the first negative ad in 2012, because the candidate’s weren’t continuously pressured to respond to the negative attacks of outside groups. One point to make clear is that outside groups MassUniting, League of Conservation Voters, Crossroads GPS and the Coalition for American Jobs did air a total of 6 broadcast ads targeting the Massachusetts Senate race between August and December 2011, before the signing of the People’s Pledge in January 2012. The chart below shows the air date and sponsor of the first negative ad aired in each of the same six Senate races, as well as the earliest negative ad aired in the heavily targeted race in Wisconsin. To highlight the effect of the People’s Pledge, two ads from Massachusetts are shown, representing the first negative ad overall, and the first negative ad run in 2012 after the signing of the Pledge.

Though Brown went negative against Warren on the campaign trail taking jabs at her Native American heritage as early as April, he didn’t use the topic in a campaign ad until September 24, 2012 with his ad “Heritage Claims.” At times, staying positive proved to be as much of a boon to candidates as going negative hurt their opponents. Brown’s polling numbers dropped only after he began to go negative against Warren in September. This can be seen in the chart below showing public polling and broadcast ad buys in the race:

In Virginia, Tim Kaine’s polling numbers went up after he went on the air with the first of his many positive ads on August, 22, 2012, “Lead by Example.” Alternatively, George Allen’s numbers dropped directly after he launched his first negative ad on October 9, “Coal Regulations.”

Looking at final polling by Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen on the MA, MT, ND, NV, OH, and VA Senate races, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren also ended the cycle with favorability ratings that were significantly higher than candidates in other Senate races. Brown’s final favorability numbers were between 52% and 53% and Warren’s were between 50% and 55%. Scott Brown was even shown with a favorability rating of 58% in a post-election WBUR/MassINC poll done in December. Only Heitkamp, Kaine, Berg, and Tester also had favorability ratings over 50% in the final days of the campaign. Heitkamp and Kaine were notably two of the candidates examined in this post who ran positive ad campaigns, with a ratio of positive to negative spots over 60/40, matching that of Warren and Brown.

It’s easy to muse about what could have been had the Massachusetts People’s Pledge been replicated in other races in 2012, but it’s tricky to project these examples onto future races. It’s fairly straightforward for two candidates to come to an agreement, but as The Boston Globe noted in a recent article about the 2013 Massachusetts special election, any kind of penalty system formed to discourage outside spending could be difficult to enforce among a tangled web of primary candidates.

There were also 33 Senate races on the ballot in 2012, while there will be just one in 2013, in addition to two gubernatorial races. Outside groups will be a lot less likely to sit out a race in the absence of others to get involved in. Warren and Brown were also strong fundraisers and didn’t need the help of outside groups to afford air time, whereas this time, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey is entering the 2013 race with just over $3 million in his campaign account, and Scott Brown, should he choose to run, has just under half a million dollars left over from 2012.

Regardless of whether or not a People’s Pledge is adopted by candidates in the 2013 U.S. Senate special election in Massachusetts, it’s important for voters nationwide to know that even in the aftermath of Citizens United, positivity is possible, and there are alternative paths to be forged looking to 2014 and beyond, it’s just a matter of asking more of our candidates.


*The People’s Pledge was signed in January 2012 by Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown in reaction to the massive increase in media spending by outside groups seen during the 2010 campaign cycle, as well as a desire to promote good government and run a campaign that was worthy of voters in the state. The Pledge banned outside spending on television and online advertising in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race. The candidates agreed to impose fines on one another if the agreement was violated; if an ad was run either on their behalf or against their opponent, they would donate an amount equal to half the cost of the ad buy to a charity of their opponent’s choosing. There were a few minor violations (in the form of on-line ads) early on in the race, but for the most part, it held tight. The steep costs associated with ad buys, particularly in the expensive Boston media market served as a strong incentive for outside groups to stay out of the race at the cost of forcing their favored candidate to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars from their campaign account.