Outside campaign cash worries voters

September 17, 2012

Three-quarters of voters are concerned about campaign ads from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The broad sentiment is boiling in an election year in which spending from nontraditional sources has skyrocketed.

Liberals offer the sharpest reaction to the flood of outside ad spending --  more than eight in 10 are concerned, including more than six in 10 who are “very concerned.” Liberals may be reacting, at least in part, to a sense that big spending from outside groups has been a boon to supporters of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Nearly seven in 10 liberals say Romney is the chief beneficiary of outside campaign spending.

Conservatives see a different picture. While most are at least “somewhat concerned,” fewer than four in 10 are “very concerned” about the issue in general, and more see Obama benefiting than Romney, though only by a small margin.

Overall, 41 percent of registered voters say outside spending mainly benefits Romney, while 29 percent say it benefits Obama. Another 16 percent volunteer that both candidates benefit equally. Among independent voters, 38 percent say Romney benefits more, 31 percent say Obama and 20 percent say both equally.

Corporations and unions are able to spend money more freely than four years ago, largely because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down past restrictions on grounds they violated the First Amendment. The most active wealthy donor, Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has pledged to spend as much as $100 million supporting Mitt Romney this year.

Democrats are also courting well-heeled donors. Former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel quit his role on the official campaign to help raise big-dollar contributions for the pro-Obama super PAC called Priorities USA Action.  Emanuel’s efforts were complicated last week with a crisis in Chicago, where he is mayor. City school teachers there went on strike for the first time in 25 years.

While the vast amounts of outside spending will ensure swing state voters see an endless stream of campaign ads this fall, it’s unclear how much blowback Romney and Obama will face for ads that appear to cross the line.

In August, Obama came under fire for a Priorities USA ad linking the death of steelworker Joe Soptic’s wife to a takeover in 1993 by Bain Capital,  Romney’s former firm. But unlike in ads from their own campaigns, Obama and Romney are able to distance themselves more easily from outside groups supporting their cause.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Sept. 7-9 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults and 826 registered voters, including landline and cellphone-only respondents. The margin of sampling error for results among registered voters is four percentage points. See full results and crosstabs here.

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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Chris Cillizza · September 17, 2012