March 27, 2001

Why Americans Aren’t Stirred by Campaign Finance Reform

Ask Americans why they don’t trust government and many will cite their distrust of government’s bosses — the politicians. Ask why they don’t trust the pols and the role of big money in politics is prominently mentioned. Yet campaign finance reform consistently gets a low rating as a national priority when tested against other issues. In January, the Pew Research Center asked a national sample of more than 1,200 adults to rate the nation’s top priorities; campaign finance reform ranked 19th out of 20 issues tested.

More recently, a poll by the Gallup Organization in March found a that mere 10% of adults were following the campaign finance debate closely, at a time when the Senate battle over the McCain-Feingold bill was starting to heat up. It is simply not a cause that moves most Americans, even though they are clearly troubled by the way election campaigns are bankrolled. A Time/CNN poll last week found 31% describing the methods candidates use to raise money as corrupt, 46% said it was unethical, but not corrupt, while only 15% thought there was nothing seriously wrong with the way candidates finance their campaigns. (See graphic)

Despite these concerns, Americans are not enthusiastic about campaign finance reform because they don’t think Washington is capable of doing a fair or effective job of overhauling the system. Last year, when presidential candidate John McCain was giving campaign finance reform a non-stop ride in the national media during the GOP primary season, only 39% of respondents polled by the Pew Research Center said they had confidence that the president and Congress could write new laws that would reduce the role of money in politics and be fair to all candidates.

This month’s Gallup Poll demonstrated a similar lack of public confidence in the consequences of reform legislation. That survey found just 22% of respondents saying they thought that passage of reform “would make our democratic form of government work much better;” 37% said a little better and the same number said that the legislation would not improve things at all.

When Americans are questioned as to why they pay so little heed to the issue, few say that it’s not important to them but some cite its complexity. Most, however, point to the partisan nature of Washington’s debate over changing the campaign finance laws, and say that politicians will always find a way to subvert the rules.

Lack of enthusiasm and cynicism notwithstanding, when the national polls have asked people recently whether they favor legislation to ban or limit soft money contributions (which is the main goal of the McCain-Feingold bill), majorities say yes — 76% in the Gallup survey, and 64% in a nationwide Bloomberg News poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Responses to these questions suggest reactions on this issue are similar to opinions about George W. Bush’s proposed tax cut. People go along with the idea, even though most have doubts about the potential benefits.

Given these views, members of Congress who choose to vote against McCain-Feingold may face less risk of punishment from the electorate than one would expect. But there’s another way of looking at this: at this point, expectations are so low that the public might be very pleasantly surprised and pleased — and would reward supporters of the legislation accordingly — if new laws governing campaign finance make a positive difference.