People’s Pledge: Does It Matter That We Know the Donors?

I listened with interest to Professor Ubertaccio’s remarks on the Clash Over the People’s Pledge kerfuffle between Ed Markey and Gabriel Gomez. Markey is calling for Gomez to sign the pledge to limit outside spending in the race, Gomez refuses. Tim Buckley, spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, calls Markey a hypocrite for taking money from industries he oversees, Markey replies that every dime he has raised has been publicly disclosed.

Does disclosure matter?

It does, argue political scientists Conor M. Dowling of University of Mississippi and Amber Wichowsky of Marquette in a paper titled Does It Matter Who’s Behind the Curtain? Anonymity in Political Advertising and the Effects of Campaign Finance. The article has just been published in American Politics Research (gated). Here is an excerpt from the abstract to the APR paper:

As a first examination of the potential consequences of increased anonymity in political advertising we designed an experiment that varied the amount and format of information about the interests behind an attack ad sponsored by an “unknown” group. We find that participants were more supportive of the attacked candidate after viewing information disclosing donors, suggesting that voters may discount a group-sponsored ad when they have more information about the financial interests behind the message. We also find some evidence that the effect of disclosure depends on how campaign finance information is presented. Our study has implications for how (to this point, failed) congressional efforts to require greater disclosure of campaign finance donors may affect electoral politics.

I found a prior version of the paper here.

As Dowling and Wichowsky point out about half outside group money spent in 2012 was undisclosed or “dark money.”

Without my going into the entire design of their experiment, Dowling and Wichowsky tested an ad Karl Rove’s American Crossroads ran against Robin Carnahan in her US senate race in Missouri against Roy Blunt in 2010. When people saw the ad they moved away from Carnahan and toward Blunt. But “additional information about American Crossroads’ donors moved aggregate opinion roughly back to where it would have been had participants not watched the ad in the first place.”

Then they tested whether the form of disclosure of contributors mattered:

We find that participants were more likely to discount the claims in the attack ad when anonymity was emphasized—perhaps raising questions about the interests or integrity of the group—or when campaign finance data was presented in a more direct and novel fashion (consistent with work on nutritional labeling and consumer financial disclosures). These results suggest that the effectiveness of a group ad may depend on whether the independent group has to disclose their donors and what form that disclosure takes.

Point, Markey.

So because disclosure matters so much, here are his top contributors from 1989-2012 according to the Center for Responsive Politics at DLA Piper, $137,600; Time Warner, $110,500; AT&T, $99,600; Mintz, Levin, $89,200; Interpublic Group, $81, 300.

Top five industries: Lawyers/law firms $1,430,233; TV/Movies/Music $1,001,548; Securities and Investment, $871, 579; Lobbyists, $769,217; and Telecom Services & Equipment, $507,254.

They all look like disinterested democracy-loving public spirited citizens to me. But at least we know who they are.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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