Why don’t Americans care more about campaign finance reform?

April 30, 2013
The Federal Election Commission listens Thursday as attorney Craig Engle argues that same-sex couples should be able to make joint campaign contributions from an individual bank account. Credit: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
The Federal Election Commission listens Thursday as attorney Craig Engle argues that same-sex couples should be able to make joint campaign contributions from an individual bank account. Credit: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

As campaign finance reform groups complain that President Obama hasn't done enough to limit the flow of big money into politics, it's worth asking, are Americans riled up about the issue?

The answer: not really, even though they back strict limits on campaign contributions in overwhelming numbers.

Here's a look at the numbers. On the question of whether super political action committees (Super PACs) should be able to raise and spend unlimited amounts on federal campaigns, the vast majority of Americans say they should be banned. When given arguments for and against their existence, nearly seven in 10 Americans--69 percent--said in a March 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll Super PACs should be illegal, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.


March 7-10, 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll

Similarly, a CBS News-New York Times poll in January 2012 found 67 percent of respondents believe groups not affiliated with a candidate should not be able to spend unlimited funds on advertisements, also including majorities across party lines.

At the same time, Americans are not well versed in campaign finance law. Just 40 percent correctly identified what a Super PAC was in a Washington Post-Pew Research poll last year, and 51 percent thought increased spending from outside groups would not help Barack Obama or Mitt Romney more in their quest to win the 2012 presidential race. Far fewer, moreover, thought Obama (15 percent) or Romney (16 percent) would gain a distinct advantage from such spending. And when asked in their own words what impact increased spending by outside groups would have on the campaign, just 24 percent described a negative consequence; three-quarters described a neutral impact or had no opinion, while 2 percent saw it as a positive.


Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll July 26-29, 2012

Like several other political issues, the lack of voter intensity on campaign finance helps account for why elected officials don't feel pressure to do more to overhaul the current system. It ranked 21st out of 22 issues in a January Pew Research Center poll when respondents were asked to name their top priorities for Obama and Congress, edging out global warming at the bottom of the list.

This combination of factors helps explain why as of Tuesday, every member of the Federal Election Commission is serving an expired term. It's the sort of thing that drives people like Trevor Potter, who used to chair the FEC and now heads the Campaign Legal Center, a bit crazy.

"There's effectively no law if there's no enforcement," Potter said. Potter, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and served between 1991 and 1995 described the FEC's current predicament as "part of a disturbing, unfortunate trajectory."

But Bradley Smith, who served as the FEC's chair a decade after Potter and now chairs the Center for Competitive Politics, said the expiration of commissioners' terms is not "an emergency" since they can serve past their end dates without any penalty.

"It's not like that is interfering with the commission's function," said Smith, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and favors further deregulation of the campaign finance system. "The real question is to what extent should the government regulate political campaigns and political speech. There is a recognition that money is important in the political system, and it's important for speech."

Not everyone has given up on campaign finance reform. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have drafted legislation that would require super PACs to reveal their donors' identities, in the same way federal candidates have do. And Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are also working on a campaign finance bill.

But Columbia Law School professor Nate Persily, a specialist in election law, said the prospects for any such legislation is slim.

"It's challenging to get anything through this Congress," Persily said. "It's even harder to get something through Congress which might affect the jobs of congressmen themselves."

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Sean Sullivan | April 30, 2013