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Who Supports Public Campaign Financing?
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, June 5, 2000

A big majority of Americans favor public campaign financing, according to a national survey by the Gallup Organization.

No, wait–that's wrong.

A big majority of Americans oppose public financing of elections, according to a national survey sponsored by the influential Hotline political newsletter.

No, wait–that's wrong.

A new survey by the Mellman Group found that 68 percent of those interviewed in a national survey supported public campaign financing.

No, wait. . . .

You don't have to search far to find a national survey conducted by a reputable pollster with numbers to support your position–whatever it is.

It's an old story, one that usually ends with pollsters woofing at each other as the public throws its hands up in understandable disgust and confusion. But this time, the story may have a definitive ending.

When confronted with their recent survey results, members of the Mellman Group decided to think a little harder about why some surveys consistently get a majority in support of public financing while others find majority opposition.

"As so often in our work, the explanation for these differences comes down to question wording," Mellman analysts wrote about the survey, which was sponsored by Public Campaign, a public interest group that supports campaign finance reform.

The Mellman question, as well as one by Gallup, places the proposal "in the context of a proposal that has two other key elements. First, public funds would replace private contributions. Second, candidate spending would be limited to the amount provided by the public fund. In every question where these two elements are made clear. . . a majority has favored the public financing plan."

Questions that suggest majority opposition to public financing typically are brief and to the point. The Hotline poll asked respondents, "which, if any, of the following campaign reforms do you favor." Then it offered as one of several proposals, "Full campaign financing by the federal government." (For the record, 15 percent of those interviewed endorsed public financing.)

So what does the Mellman Group question look like? It reads in full: "Now I'm going to read you a description of a specific proposal that some people say will change the way federal election campaigns are financed. Under this proposal, candidates would no longer raise money from private sources. Instead, each candidate would receive a set amount of money from a publicly financed election fund.

Spending by candidates would be limited to the amount they receive from the fund. Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose this proposal, or don't you have an opinion on this?"

My first reaction was: Too long; way too long. My second thought: apparently not. One of the clearest signals that a question is too long or too confusing is a high percentage of people who don't offer an opinion. That's not what happened in this March survey of 800 likely voters.

Even though they were clearly offered the "don't know" option, nearly nine in 10–87 percent–offered an opinion (68 percent in favor, 19 percent opposed, 13 percent don't know or refused). Impressive.

What's more, Mellman pollsters attempted to get people to move off their original position by reading them brief summaries of the major arguments for and against public financing. These paragraphs were strong, but fair. The statement in favor noted that candidates now are chosen on the basis of "their bank accounts, not on the basis of their ideas." The plan would "level the playing field" and help good people get elected even if "they don't have connections to the rich and powerful."

The statement in opposition to the plan was equally direct–if not more so. It noted that opponents call public financing "a welfare program for politicians" that encourages candidates from "fringe parties or organizations like the KKK and Communists" to run for public office and means spending tax dollars "to help candidates run more negative ads." Ouch.

Not that it mattered: "Hearing these arguments changed few minds. Support for clean money remains extremely strong with 67 percent in favor, 23 percent opposed, even after voters have heard all the opponents' key arguments," Mellman analysts wrote.

One reason why the question seems to work is that it embodies three specific proposals that seem to speak directly to the public's biggest worries about contemporary politics; the cost of running for office, the influence of money from private interests, and the inherent fundraising advantage well-known incumbents have over other worthy but lesser-known candidates.

According to the survey, three in four favor spending limits in political campaigns. The same lopsided majority supports equal access to public funds by candidates. Seven in 10 said candidates who received public funds should be prohibited from raising private money.

Methodologists now have a definitive answer to the question of dueling poll results on campaign finance reform. And we know under what circumstances (spending limits and a ban on private contributions) the public will favor–no, wildly endorse–public financing of election campaigns.

"Obviously, there is no absolute right or wrong way to ask about public financing. It is clear though, that the public is much more supportive of . . . proposals that include spending limits, the elimination (or vast reduction) of private money, along with public financing of elections."

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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