Wanting Votes, Candidates Sign on the Dotted Line, But Does it Help?
Do presidential candidates have to put campaign promises in writing to win? More and more special interest groups are asking them to do that.
Increasingly, special interest groups nationally and in Iowa are asking presidential candidates to put their positions in writing by signing specifically worded pledges to support the groups' agendas.
Putting their name on the dotted line could translate into key endorsements, and ultimately votes, but it could also backfire, and there are no guarentees of returns.
"I think it's laudable for groups to try to get a candidate to commit to a position. The trouble with pledges is you can't envision every situation a candidate, particularly a president, might encounter," said David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register's chief political writer for 34 years and now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
"It may seem entirely reasonable to pledge not to raise taxes, until someone uses nuclear weapons, or there's an earthquake or a war," he said.
Still, in many cases, the politicians comply.
This year, the push for candidates to sign pledges has ranged from the predictable - abortion activists on both sides trying to pin candidates down; to the ridiculous - Newt Gingrich signing a national statement that he will be faithful to his wife.
(If he's not, do we get to divorce him as president?)
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum may be the most prolific pledger this campaign season. He wrote an editorial in USA Today about why he believes in them.
He has signed a pledge to police religious freedom nationally and internationally as president; a personhood pledge to seek a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of the unborn from conception on; to oppose and veto any tax increase; more than one pledge defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Yet, he's in sixth place with fewer than 5 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers supporting him in the latest Iowa presidential poll by Iowa State University, the Cedar Rapids Gazette and KCRG.
"It's like endorsements; it's just part of the puzzle," Yepsen said.
However, there are some recent indications it could be paying dividends for Santorum.
Iowa's influential Family Leader, an organization that pushes religious and social conservative issues, asked candidates to sign a controversial pledge against gay marriage, for marital fidelity and against pornography. An original version was criticized for having racist overtones.
Gingrich, Mitt Romney and some other Republican candidates declined to sign it. Santorum did.
Gingrich, later trying to woo the organization, issued a public statement to the Family Leader, in which he promised, among other things, to "uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others."
Although the group said Gingrich was among four candidates in final consideration for the group's endorsement, armed with their signed pledge, Santorum got the nod from two key leaders of the group earlier this week.
Yepsen said social conservative groups aren't the only ones on this band wagon.
"The farm community, the business community, Iowans for Tax Relief. Lots of groups are putting pledges before candidates," he said.
In New Hampshire, eight candidates, including Gingrich who is pictured, have signed the Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire Thomson Presidential Pledge, a six-point plan for reducing taxes, regulation, reducing the size and scope of government, energy independence, and support for the Constitution.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said the increase in groups asking candidates to sign pledges "is really a reflection of a distrust of politicians. It's an attempt to nail them down."
"It's a mistrust and a belief that you need an extra bit of leverage," he said. "It's been more prevalent with the rise of the Tea Party, who are very suspicious of politicians."
Candidates also must be leery of how their promises can be used against them.
The most notorious example, cited by the Boston Globe, is George H.W. Bush who signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge during his campaign in 1988. Remember his famous line at the Republican National Convention? "Read my lips, no new taxes."
Unfortunately the deficit soared and with a Democratic Congress, Bush was forced to raise taxes. Bill Clinton successfully used his broken promise to defeat him in the next election.
"There is a push-back from candidates, who have seen it used against them," Yepsen said.
In Iowa, politicians can probably refuse to sign a group's pledge without a whole lot of political fallout, Yepsen said.
"You'll get some publicity for signing or you'll get thumped but those are pretty much one-day (media) things," he said.
More consequential are candidates decisions on pledges requested by groups whose endorsements "come with money or come with shoe leather. Those endorsements matter in Iowa," said Yepsen.