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Jonathan L. Wharton

It’s only days before Tuesday’s elections and while I’m not surprised at the amount of campaign advertising on television, radio, and online, I’m more befuddled by their conflicting and confusing statements about the candidates and their stances. Must we rely on ads to decide this election season? Sadly, yes. Campaign ads are often the only source so many depend on especially at the last minute since so few voters research candidates before going to the polls. Even worse, it’s become the nature of the political beast that campaign donations saturate our ad space.

I have been a proponent of campaign finance reform and gift-ban rules since I worked for congressional lawmakers in support of significant reforms decades ago. Of course, the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision allowed for more donations than the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act allowed and we’re witnessing the result of that Supreme Court decision. The Court ruled that corporations and other entities are individuals and limiting donations is unconstitutional.

Since that landmark case a dozen years ago, campaign donations only increased to support candidates and the money largely goes unaccounted for. So, many of the ads we’re receiving are sponsored by political action committees and mysterious “dark money” organizations. So it’s no surprise then that much of the campaign ads we’re being exposed to are sponsored by entities outside of Connecticut. When races get competitive, as we’re seeing with the gubernatorial election and especially for Congress, more donations and ads become the norm. 

Interestingly, Connecticut offers its Citizen Election Program, which provides grants for candidates seeking state office. It’s been a start toward some campaign finance reform, even if the initiative has its flaws. But since this year’s gubernatorial candidates did not choose CEP grants, much of their campaign spending is coming from their personal checkbooks and large donors so it’s become Connecticut’s most expensive gubernatorial race yet.

Campaign ads are numerous for these gubernatorial and congressional elections – and they have to be since our Connecticut media market is fractured and expensive. For such a small state, candidate ad campaigns must buy visibility in both Hartford-New Haven market as well as the pricey New York City market, which includes Fairfield County. New York media space is the costliest in the nation, but it’s also a crowded space. Nonetheless, gaining voters’ attention is critical for Connecticut’s candidates.

Living on our shoreline, I have watched and listened to an enormous number campaign ads on cable and radio stations for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut during this election cycle. Just the other night, I saw a plethora of ads from tri-state area candidates. In some cases the ads went back-to-back between opposing candidates, as well as state to state. If it’s difficult for me – a state and local political scientist – it’s probably also difficult to keep track of the candidates as an average voter. I was also surprised to see ads for my U.S. Representative, New Haven Democrat Rosa DeLauro, as I can’t remember seeing her campaign ads on cable before this election year.

Ultimately, campaigns and outside donors are spending millions of dollars on congressional midterms and state races. It’s an unfortunate waste of money just to get a name out there, but we are also seeing attack ads. They offer confusing messages about candidates’ stances and they try to appeal to last-minute voters. Negative commercials are concerning, but data suggests that they drive turnout in competitive races.

My hope is that voters do their homework before Tuesday’s election, so that they’re fully aware of their candidates’ positions and records. One cannot rely on negative ads for voter education. Sadly, it seems this will be the case for the foreseeable future – or until additional campaign reforms become law.

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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