"Influence of Money in Politics a Top Concern for Voters," reads the headline from the Wall Street Journal's writeup of its new poll conducted with NBC News. And, indeed, the headline is true. Just look at this chart!
On Twitter, Facebook and even via e-mail people pointed me to this poll question and insisted that it provided conclusive evidence that my long-argued belief that regular people don't vote on the influence money has over our politics was/is wrong.
Let me first say this: I am often wrong. Let me second say this: This is not one of those times. Or at least not yet.
This is not your standard "what issue matters most to you" sort of question. Usually, those questions are either open-ended (meaning the poll respondent can offer up any answer) or provide the respondents a laundry list of potential choices -- "economy", "jobs", "immigration", "energy", "national security" -- from which to choose.
Here, for example, is how Gallup's open-ended results look on that "most important problem" question:
This WSJ-NBC question is not that. Thanks to my friend Mark Murray, NBC's senior political editor, I got to look at the question exactly as asked. And, in it, people are given the six options seen in the chart at the top of this post as well as "none of these", "other" and "not sure".
Ok. So, what the Journal and NBC are trying to do with this question is NOT rank order how pressing campaign finance, the state of the economy or national security are for voters in 2016. Rather, the two organizations are testing a variety of looming narratives likely to play out in 2016 -- from the amount of money in the political system to the effect of political dynasties to the overwhelming negativity of the campaign to come -- to see which has the most resonance with voters.
Which is an absolutely intriguing question that provides interesting results -- most notably that the "dynasty" attack against either Hillary Clinton and/or Jeb Bush isn't likely to change many minds. Or that there isn't much clamor for an independent, third party candidate.
But, what this poll question doesn't show is that campaign finance reform or money in politics is the top issue or concern for voters. Not even close. It shows that out of the six issues provided to respondents by the NBC-WSJ pollsters, worries that "wealthy individuals and corporations will have too much influence over who wins"are at the top of the charts. That's it.
Now, simply because the poll question doesn't prove that money in politics is THE top issue for voters doesn't mean that it proves nothing. The fact that one in three people chose the money in politics option out of the six offered to them could well be a leading indicator that the rise of super PACs (and the coverage of the rise of super PACs) has hit critical mass for a public who is already inclined to believe the wealthy have more influence over the political process than the average Joe.
Emphasis on "could be." I remain skeptical that given an open-ended question and asked to name top voting priorities that anything to do with money in politics or campaign finance reform would break into the top 10 of voter concerns. But, politics is always changing because how people think about government and society is always changing. (I give you the rapid change in public opinion on same-sex marriage.)
So.....maybe. But, this poll question proves nothing.