Politics & Policy

Contract With America

A updated idea in political accountability.

Accountability is a familiar theme in American political discourse. And while it is true that our federal leaders are elected every two, four, or six years, and that elections are the ultimate accountability mechanism, it is also true that since Watergate the average American voter has had less faith in his national institutions, and much less faith in the elected leadership.

It remains pretty bad–a recent survey we conducted shows that only 21 percent of American voters believe their member of Congress will do what they promised to do in the campaign “always” or “most of the time.” And 63 percent say they have “very little trust” or “no trust at all” in “political candidates keeping their promises.”

Very little is done to ameliorate this problem. Consider the corporate accounting crises of the last few years: After several high-profile accounting scandals, significant (and legitimate) public anger forced Congress to enact a number of reforms. While the cumulative impact of these reform measures (and possible unintended consequences) is still being studied, it is clear that something had to be done to restore the faith of investors and protect the growing investor class. The political system was responsive here. But the political system has not been responsive to its similar no-confidence crisis—one whose existence is painfully obvious in some recent focus groups we’ve held.

So, what can America’s political class do to rebuild some trust in a difficult and divisive time? Here’s one possible answer: candidate-created employment contracts with the voters. Sixty-nine percent of the voters in our survey said they consider their elected officials as “employees of the people”. Sixty-eight percent thought that legally binding employment contracts with the voters that state that a candidate, if elected, will make good on specific campaign promises within a defined length of time–or not run again–was a “good idea.” Of course, the American voter isn’t naïve. Eighty-eight percent indicated skepticism that most politicians would consider such a proposal.

Our survey results are no real surprise. People are cynical about government. This contract idea may be the next phase in a decades-long quest for accountability that began, and continues, with candidates’ signing pledges. The conservative/populist pledge not to increase taxes, especially the one drafted by Americans for Tax Reform, comes to mind. But it is more complicated than that. The Dean campaign for the 2004 Democratic nomination–and to a far greater extent, the Bush reelection campaign–proved that people-powered campaigns in the Internet age are far more powerful than the top-down, ad-driven campaigns of the past. These campaigns were, in many ways, a “Back to the Future” revolution that put a hi-tech twist on a very old style of campaigning. But a significant ingredient of these campaigns is a bond of trust between the volunteers and the candidate. There are many ways to build that bond, and this research suggests one way is to do so is with a binding employment-candidate contract, created by the campaign, and laying out specific action items that the candidate promises to complete. Such a contract could be posted on the Internet and used to recruit volunteers, raise money, and drive turnout. Think of it as transparent, “open source” campaigning for the digital age.

This idea appears to be intuitive to the Americans we polled, as contracts are now such an integral part of American life. In fact, 63 percent agreed with the statement, “Americans already enter into contracts like mortgages, car loans, rental agreements, service agreement and employment contracts. Candidate employment contracts are a logical next step.”

However logical this next step is, opinion elites in Washington, academia, and the media will, no doubt, attack this concept as something that would make governing more difficult for elected officials. We tested this argument head-to-head against the opposing view, and Americans overwhelmingly rejected the notion that such contracts would make governing too difficult–and sided with the common sense idea that this would better bind electors and the elected.

Finally, there are the bottom-line political benefits of offering the voters an employment contract. Seventy percent of Republican primary voters and 74 percent of Democratic primary voters said that all things being equal, they would vote for a candidate offering a contract over one that did not. And 80 percent of respondents said they would have a more favorable opinion of a candidate offering the voters an employment contract. These numbers suggest that candidates that adopt this idea first will improve their chances of victory.

We believe this idea fits into a future in which campaigns look for ways to build a dialogue with a network of supporters and donors and generate grassroots support on Election Day. Like most advances in politics, we believe that this idea will be attacked until it begins winning elections–at which point it will be widely copied.

Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates conducted a nationally representative online survey of 1200 American voters for Jeff Aldrich, Aldrich Partners September 27-29, 2005. The margin of error on this survey is +/- 2.83% in 95 out of 100 cases.

Jeff Aldrich is president of Aldrich Partners. Tony Fabrizio is a partner at Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates.

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