Academic journal article Independent Review

Public Opinion and Campaign Finance: Reformers Reality

Academic journal article Independent Review

Public Opinion and Campaign Finance: Reformers Reality

Article excerpt

In the 2000 race for the presidency, Arizona senator John McCain promoted campaign finance reform as a partial remedy for widespread citizen cynicism toward politics. On the Democratic side, Al Gore promised in his acceptance speech for the party nomination that his first act as president would be to send campaign finance legislation to the Congress: "If you entrust me with the presidency, I will put our democracy back in your hands and get all the special interest money, all of it, out of our democracy by enacting campaign finance reform" (Gore 2000). The appeal of such proposals is easy to understand. In an era of public cynicism toward politics, new regulations promise new ways of doing business in Washington. The mass media cover campaign finance feverishly, with the slant that money is the root of all political evils, and treat calls for reform with little of their usual skepticism. Because reformers receive a free ride from the media and the public generally supports reform in the abstract, calls for change carry little political risk. (1)

Despite the public's overwhelming belief that money corrupts, significant campaign finance reform at the federal level has been elusive since the last major reforms in the 1970s. (The significance of the 2002 reforms remains to be seen.) The parallels to other issues are striking. If the public is asked about health care or social security reform, overwhelming majorities favor new regulations. Yet we observe only glacial movement on these fronts as well. Like many issues in American politics, they share four traits: issue complexity, multiple viable alternatives, fierce defense of the status quo, and division of public opinion on specific reform proposals. These are classic ingredients in a recipe for political stalemate, and only recently has that stalemate been broken.

Elites have passionate views on the issue, and each side claims that public sentiment supports its position. For instance, John McCain believes the public supported his efforts to enact new campaign finance regulations: "I believe that the country wants this reform. There is no doubt about the explosion of soft money. There is no doubt that it has gridlocked us here in Washington and the message of the last election is that Americans do not want that" (CNN 2001). Public opinion also figures into the campaign finance debate in another way. Advocates of new regulations on fund-raising argue that certain aspects of the system, such as soft money and issue advocacy, foster public cynicism and mistrust of American government. Americans have long lacked confidence in Congress and in the presidency in particular as well as in the federal government in general (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995). If the advocates are right, new restrictions on campaign finance might counteract this general tendency in public opinion toward a mistrust of American government and public officials.

In this article, I review the public-opinion data and show that the public has favored reform, but it has been inconsistent in its preferences and has assigned campaign finance reform a low priority. I also show that trust in government is not linked to campaign spending. This absence of connection contradicts arguments that Americans will trust government more if the amount spent on campaigns drops following reform.

The Role of Public Opinion in a Republican System

In a republican democracy, there is a tension between legislators' representing the desires of their constituencies (the delegate model) and their voting in accordance with their conscience (the trustee or Burkean model). This balancing problem is complicated by imperfect preference aggregation and measurement error. Preference aggregation refers to the manner in which individual preferences are translated into a policy outcome. The last four decades of research in political science and economics have demonstrated that in general no "will of the people" exists. …

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