Campaign finance reform has broad support but not broad urgency: It continues to rank very low in public priorities, despite a widespread belief that abuse underlies the current system.
Three-quarters of Americans support stricter campaign finance laws, up a bit from two-thirds a year ago. Much of the increase is among Republicans, possibly reflecting President Bush's recent support of some type of reform, as well as Sen. John McCain's more longstanding efforts.
One reason for reform's popularity is the level of perceived abuse. Nearly all Americans, 93 percent, think politicians do special favors for their campaign contributors; 80 percent think it happens "often."
And the public isn't happy about it. Eight in 10 call it a problem; 62 percent a "big" problem. More than two-thirds think special favors for contributors tend to be unethical, although fewer, 42 percent, think they tend to be illegal.
Special favors for political contributors
A problem 81% Unethical 68 Illegal 42
All the same, many people doubt that new campaign finance laws would solve the problem: Just a quarter of Americans are convinced that stricter laws would do a lot to reduce the influence of money in politics. Those people give it a high priority — but there just aren't that many of them.
Moreover, a significant minority, 42 percent, think stronger enforcement of current laws is the better approach. Given this option, 54 percent prefer new, stricter laws — considerably fewer than the three-quarters who support the concept more generally.
Bottom of the List
These doubts help explain why campaign finance reform consistently rates so low on the public's agenda. In this poll only 18 percent say it should be the "highest priority" item for Bush and the Congress, ranking it last out of six issues tested, far below heavy-hitters such as education, the economy and Social Security.
Highest priority for Bush and Congress
Improving education 53% Keeping the economy strong 47 Protecting Social Security 42 Cutting taxes 29 Environmental protection 27 Campaign finance reform 18
The ranking of campaign finance reform hasn't budged, regardless of the Senate debate of the McCain-Feingold reforms that began last week. In January campaign finance reform ranked 16th out of 18 issues tested for public priority. Last fall it was 16th of 16. Even in the New Hampshire Republican primary, which lifted John McCain to stardom, just 9 percent of voters cited campaign finance reform as the most important issue in their vote, placing it fifth out of seven issues tested. And it did no better on the Democratic side.
Large majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike think politicians often do special favors for their campaign contributors, and support stricter campaign finance laws in principle. But the parties diverge in their assessment of the extent of the problem and, as a result, the level of priority they assign to it.
Republicans are less likely than Democrats and independents to call politicians' favors a "big" problem or to think these favors are unethical or illegal. Not surprisingly, Republicans also are less likely to give the issue a high priority.