The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can we please stop acting like campaign finance is a major voting issue?

PLEASE. STOP. (ARNO BURGI/European Pressphoto Agency)

There are two seemingly contradictory data points in a new New York Times-CBS national poll.

1. 84 percent of people -- 80 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats -- believe money has too much influence in American politics.

2. Less than 1 percent of people said money in politics or campaign fundraising was the most important issue facing the country.

How can the public hold both notions in their heads simultaneously? It's actually not that complicated -- and helps to explain why we need to stop acting like campaign finance reform is a major issue in actual campaigns.

Let's start with point No. 1.  When asked whether there is too much money in politics, more than 8 in 10 respondents said yes.  This reflects a broad consensus in the United States that the idea of billions being spent on our presidential races -- including tens of millions by wealthy individuals -- is unappealing and, at some level, regarded as wrong.

Okay. Fair enough.

What point No. 2 shows, however, is that the public's broad dislike for the amount of money flowing through the political system is more a theoretical distaste than a practical one. As in, when prompted to offer judgment on how much money is in politics, people agree it's too much.  But, left unprompted, they make quite clear that campaign finance reform is not even close to a top-of-the-mind issue.

Think of it like this: If someone asked you whether you should eat better, almost all of us would say yes.  Too many hamburgers, too much pizza, too many frappuccinos. (Or maybe that's just me.) But, when you go out to lunch or find yourself at the grocery story, how many of us actually make good on our stated intent to eat better? If you're anything like me, the answer is a whole heck of a lot fewer people than say that they should be eating better.

There's a huge difference between prompted intent and unprompted action.

And, this isn't just a theoretical argument based on a handful of poll numbers. Think back to the last two midterm election in 2010 and 2014. In each, Democrats -- from the White House on down -- insisted that Republicans' reliance on big money donors would be punished by the voting public. Harry Reid went to the Senate floor time and time again during the summer and fall of 2014 to blast the Koch brothers for their alleged attempts to buy the vote.

You'll remember what happened in both of those elections: BIG Republican victories. Those across-the-board GOP wins didn't come solely from the Democrats' focus on campaign finance issues, obviously, but it's also obvious that attempts to make the 2010 and 2014 elections referenda on big (Republican) money in politics just didn't work.

The simple fact is that outside of committed campaign finance reform advocates -- a single-digit percentage of the overall population -- getting big money out of politics simply isn't a voting priority for the vast, vast majority of Americans.

Which makes the fact that Hillary Clinton appears set to make getting money out of politics one of her signature issues in 2016 all the more intriguing. Either a) Clinton and her lead pollster Joel Benenson know something I don't (totally possible), or b) Clinton simply believes in the issue and wants to elevate it in the public mind no matter what polling says.

Either way, Clinton is taking a risk if she does put campaign finance reform at the center of her campaign.  Because, based on all the evidence of the past five years (and more), the only conclusion you can draw is that average people simply don't (and won't) use how much money is in the political process to make their minds up in 2016.