Business

Public Dissatisfied With Campaign Finance Laws, Supports Limits on Contributions

But opposes government financing of elections; rates issue of low importance

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans tend to be dissatisfied with the way the campaign finance system works in the United States, and thus would support some measures that would restrict or more closely regulate campaign spending. However, Americans oppose one proposal that is designed to reduce the influence of campaign contributions -- public financing of elections -- and in general the public rates the issue among the least important of many issues facing the country. Also, relatively few Americans pay much attention to the issue compared to other issues in the news.

The major findings from Gallup and other polls on this issue include:

  • Public dissatisfied with current campaign finance laws and supports more regulation

According to a Gallup poll conducted January 10-14 of this year, only 23% of Americans are satisfied with the country's campaign finance laws -- the lowest among 20 issues -- while 56% are dissatisfied. These numbers give campaign finance a net dissatisfaction score of –33 percentage points, which puts it fourth lowest among the issues rated in that poll. The 21% who express no opinion is the highest number among all of the issues.

SATISFACTION SUMMARY TABLE

2001 January 10-14

Total satisfied

Total dissatisfied

Satisfied minus dissatisfied

 

%

%

%

       

The state of the nation's economy

68

27

41

The position of women in the nation

67

31

36

The role America plays in world affairs

61

34

27

The nation's military strength and preparedness

61

32

29

The quality of the environment in the nation

56

40

16

The position of blacks and other racial minorities in the nation

53

40

13

The quality of medical care in the nation

48

49

–1

The nation's policies to reduce or control crime

45

52

–7

The state of race relations

44

48

–4

The nation's policies regarding the abortion issue

43

47

–4

The quality of public education in the nation

40

57

–17

The nation's laws or policies on guns

38

57

–19

The Social Security and Medicare systems

38

57

–19

The acceptance of homosexuality in the nation

35

57

–22

The nation's energy policies

32

49

–17

The level of immigration into the country today

32

55

–23

The nation's efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness

30

66

–36

The availability of affordable health care

29

68

–39

The amount Americans pay in federal taxes

26

71

–45

The nation's campaign finance laws

23

56

–33

As a consequence of this dissatisfaction, Americans tend to favor new laws to regulate campaign activity. In a July 10-11 Gallup poll, Americans expressed support for Congress to pass new campaign finance laws by a margin of 65% to 25%.

Earlier in the year, in a March 9-11, poll, the wording of the question was somewhat different, and support for campaign finance reform was even higher. By a margin of 76% to 19%, Americans said they favored "new federal laws limiting the amount of money that any individual or group can contribute to the national political parties," with 51% saying they favored the idea "strongly" and 25% "moderately."

A similar finding was obtained by a CBS News poll conducted almost two years earlier, July 12-14, 1999, when 62% of Americans said they favored limiting the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns, while 36% said they favored allowing unlimited contributions.

  • Little support for public financing of elections

One of the proposed solutions to curtail the influence of interest groups on elections is to remove the need for contributions by having the government pay for campaign costs. However, Americans are not enamored with this approach. A CBS News poll on July 13-14, 1999 found that 37% of respondents favored, but 58% opposed, "public financing of political campaigns -- that is, using tax money to pay for campaigns and prohibiting large donations from individuals and special interest groups."

The next year, a February 12-14 CBS News/New York Times poll found even greater opposition, but this time the question omitted the phrase about prohibiting large donations. One-half of the sample was asked if respondents favored or opposed public financing of political campaigns -- "that is, using only government funds to pay for political campaigns," and by a margin of 65% to 31%, respondents said they opposed it.

The other half of the sample was told that public financing of political campaigns was "using only tax money to pay for political campaigns," rather than "government funds." The "tax money" wording elicited even more opposition, 75%, compared with just 20% who were in favor.

  • Low priority given to campaign finance reform

Although Americans express dissatisfaction with the current campaign finance system, they do not give the issue high priority compared to other issues they want the Congress and the president to address. In a June Gallup poll this year, campaign finance reform ranked at the bottom among a list of nine issues mentioned to respondents. Just 40% of Americans said the issue was extremely or very important, compared with 54% who said that about missile defense, the issue that ranked just above campaign finance reform.

In a Gallup poll last January, the same general pattern was found. Among 19 issues measured, campaign finance reform ranked 18th, with 42% of Americans saying it was an extremely or very important issue -- about the same number who said that this past June. The only issue that ranked lower in importance was gay rights issues. Immigration and abortion ranked above campaign finance reform, with 46% and 49%, respectively, saying these issues were at least very important.

 

IMPORTANCE SUMMARY TABLE -- January 10-14, 2001

 
 

Extremely important

Extremely/Very
important

     
 

%

%

     

Public education

41

88

The economy

34

85

Health care

38

85

The Social Security and Medicare systems

37

84

Crime

36

83

Poverty and homelessness

31

76

Taxes

31

73

Energy policies

26

69

The environment

26

69

Military and defense issues

26

68

Guns

27

63

Race relations

17

58

Foreign affairs

17

57

Women's rights

20

57

Laws to help blacks and other racial minorities

16

51

Abortion

19

49

Immigration

17

46

Campaign finance

16

42

Gay rights issues

10

30



  • Little attention paid to campaign finance reform issue

Consistent with the low priority Americans give to the issue, they also do not pay much attention to it compared with the attention they give other issues. In the March Gallup poll, just 10% said they followed the issue very closely, and another 39% said somewhat closely. The 10% figure gives campaign finance a ranking in the lower fifth of all issues measured over the past several years.

  • Public sees positive impact of campaign finance reform, but optimism depends on question wording

Americans tend to be optimistic that campaign finance reform would be effective in reducing the influence of interest groups, or in making our government work better. However, the amount of optimism expressed depends to some extent on the way in which the question is worded. If respondents are asked to rate the potential effectiveness of campaign finance reform on a scale from high to low, they tend to express high levels of optimism. But when the question juxtaposes some degree of effectiveness against the possibility that the wealthy and interest groups might be able to find loopholes and continue to exert influence, public optimism drops considerably.

The scale approach is illustrated by a question in Gallup's March 9-11, 2001 poll. Almost six in 10 Americans said that campaign finance reform would make our democratic form of government work better -- 22% said much better and 37% said a little better. Only five percent said worse.

A somewhat more optimistic response was recorded by an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from May 21, 1999, which found over half of respondents (55%) saying that campaign finance reform laws "to reduce the influence of special interests" would be very effective, and another 14% saying fairly effective. Only a quarter of respondents gave a low rating -- 16% said "just somewhat" effective, and 9% said "not very" effective.

Even a simple question that asked respondents whether stricter campaign finance laws would or would not reduce the influence of money in politics elicited a high level of optimism. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March-April 2000 found that 63% said such laws would reduce the influence of money in politics, while 33% said they would not.

In contrast to the approaches shown above, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also tried another way of phrasing the issue. In October 1999 and again in January 2000, the poll presented two sets of arguments to respondents about the possible effectiveness of campaign finance reform laws. The argument in favor made the point that reform would have a positive effect "because it would reduce the influence that the wealthy and special interests have on elections." The counter-argument said "other people say that campaign finance reform would have no effect ... because the wealthy and special interests would always find loopholes in the law and continue to have just as much influence on elections." These two arguments apparently were not rotated, giving rise to a probable recency effect -- where people in doubt are more likely to choose the second of two options offered.

Not surprisingly, the results of presenting these two arguments, especially in the order just cited, showed much less optimism than did the previous questions about the potential effectiveness of campaign finance reform. In the October 1999 poll, Americans were evenly divided, with 43% saying campaign finance reform would have a positive effect and 44% saying no effect. Three months later, 40% said a positive effect and 49% said no effect.

SurveyMethods

Results from all Gallup polls cited above are based on telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18+. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/4765/Public-Dissatisfied-Campaign-Finance-Laws-Supports-Limits-Contributions.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030