Campaign Reform, Who Cares?

W A S H I N G T O N, March 19, 2001 -- While most Americans favor the concept of campaign finance reform, which will consume the Senate for the next two weeks, the issue ranks low on the public's agenda.

Most people have many more pressing concerns, and most doubt reform would effectively curb the role of money in politics.

Indeed, compared to other issues, campaign finance long has been in the basement of public priorities. In an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll in January, 20 percent said it should receive "the highest priority" from President Bush and Congress, ranking it 16th out of 18 issues tested. And it came in dead last (out of 16) as a voting issue last fall.

One reason is that people care most about issues that affect them personally — things like health care, the economy, education, crime or Social Security. Campaign finance reform doesn't hit them where they live.

Even in the New Hampshire Republican primary, which lifted Sen. 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. (It did no better on the Democratic side.)

Good Idea, But...

It's not that the idea is unpopular. In ABCNEWS/Washington Post polling last year two-thirds of Americans supported stricter laws controlling the way political campaigns raise and spend money. Gallup found a similar level of support specifically for limits on "soft money" contributions.

Support Oppose ABC/Post April, 2000: Stricter campaign finance laws 66% 28% Gallup October 2000: Limiting soft money contributions 72% 24%

But these same polls also found questions in the publics mind about how well campaign finance reform would work, and whether it's really needed. In our poll just a quarter said campaign finance reform would do "a lot" to reduce the influence of money in politics; another 38 percent thought it would work, but just "somewhat."

Gallup, similarly, found just 28 percent saying major changes in campaign finance laws "could succeed in reducing the power of special interests in Washington." Almost two-thirds, instead, said that "special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington" no matter what new laws are passed.

That seems to represent a broad sense that corruption (or at least influence buying) can't be legislated out of existence — that money will corrupt the corruptible no matter what's on the books.

Indeed there's no majority consensus on whether new laws actually are needed. In the ABC/Post poll 49 percent said new, stricter laws are the best way to reduce improper campaign fundraising — but a significant minority, 40 percent, said stronger enforcement of current laws is the better answer.

Finally, while there are concerns about money in politics, perceptions of the problem should not be overstated. In a Pew poll in 1997, slightly less than half said money in politics "often" kills important legislation, or leads politicians to support laws they don't believe in. On the other side of the ledger, in a recent ABCNEWS poll nine in 10 Americans said that regardless of its faults, this country has the best system of government in the world.

Bottom line, it's de rigueur to diss politicians and, by extension, their fundraising. But the things people really are upset about, they give a high priority to fixing. And campaign finance reform has thus far failed to move up on the public agenda.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.