Financial Skeptics

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You might think campaign finance reform was a huge public concern this year, what with the media's close coverage of the money chase and the candidates' clashing views on the issue. Vice President Al Gore would ban all unlimited gifts and expand public funding to congressional campaigns, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush holds the opposite position. He supports unlimited gifts from individuals so long as they are fully disclosed, and he opposes public financing of elections.

But so far voters are responding to the issue with the statistical equivalent of a stifled yawn, often ranking it well below a dozen others - from education to gun control - that large majorities say will be "very important" factors in their vote for president in November. An April survey by The Washington Post/ABC News found that only 34 percent of Americans rate campaign finance reform as a "very important" factor, with another 36 percent calling it "somewhat important." Republicans, younger people, and highly educated Americans were less likely to say it's very important.

Why the issue ranks so low is a mystery. After all, U.S. Senator John McCain brought an enormous amount of public attention to the need for campaign finance reform during his run for the presidency. By the time he withdrew, in March, eight in 10 Americans told pollsters for CBS News that the nation's system of financing campaigns needs fundamental change or to be completely rebuilt.

So if it needs fixing so badly, why isn't the topic more important to voters? Perhaps people doubt that technical changes in the fundraising process would improve politicians' moral behavior. Nearly seven in 10 Americans say that they trust politicians in Washington only "some of the time" or "none of the time," and the reasons they give include a belief that politicians lie, say what's needed to get elected, and are only out to get what they can for themselves. A majority of Americans also tell poll takers that high campaign costs discourage good people from running for political office; that it's time for Washington politicians to retire and make room for new people; that elections are "for sale"; and that government operates "for a few big interests" instead of for "the benefit of all people."

The political problems surrounding the way candidates raise and spend money are as old as democracy itself. Back in 1757, George Washington, then a candidate for Virginia's colonial legislature, caused a public furor by serving each voter an average of a quart and a half of alcoholic drink. That went well beyond the customary nibbles that colonials expected at the polling place in those days. Today, the high costs of campaigns and politicians' increasing reliance on special interests and wealthy donors, has raised troubling questions about political equality and the democratic principle of "one person, one vote."

But how should the campaign finance system be fixed? Public opinion is not well formed and answers vary depending on the wording of the questions. When asked whether or not stricter campaign finance laws would reduce the influence of money in politics, 63 percent said yes they would, in a March poll by ICR/ABC/Washington Post. But when asked a question that included arguments for and against stricter rules, 49 percent said that such reforms would have no effect (because donors and special interests would always find new loopholes), and only 40 percent said the reforms would have a positive effect, according to a survey by Hart and Teeter/NBC/The Wall Street Journal in January.

Public views also conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court's reading of the Constitution. Most voters say they support a system that would place limits on both donations to candidates and campaign spending. But in 1976, the court gave a split decision: It endorsed limits on individual contributions as a way to deter corruption, but ruled that limits on candidates' spending would violate their right to free speech. At the same time, the court paved the way for publicly-funded elections by ruling that candidates could accept voluntary limits on their campaign spending in exchange for public funds. But surveys indicate that six in 10 voters oppose using tax money to pay for elections.

Campaign finance reform's low ranking on voters' presidential scorecards might also indicate a desire for more fundamental changes in the political system. In January, 73 percent of voters told Rasmussen Research that they favor term limits for Congress, and 67 percent said it's a good idea to let voters make or repeal laws through the ballot initiative process used in some states.

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