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Public: Major Changes Needed in Campaign Finance System

by David W. Moore

But Issue is Low Priority


PRINCETON, NJ -- With the defeat this week of the latest attempt to pass campaign finance reform legislation in the U.S. Senate, a new Gallup poll shows that most Americans probably don't care a great deal about the subject, and that the matter is unlikely to emerge as a major issue in the 2000 presidential election. The poll did not ask specifically about the campaign finance measure jointly sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona (a candidate for his party's presidential nomination in the 2000 election), and Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin -- a bill which would have banned unlimited and unregulated donations to political parties, so-called "soft money" contributions. The poll instead focused generally on campaign finance and found that while almost two-thirds of Americans feel that the way federal campaigns are financed needs at least major changes, less than four in ten say that Congress should make the issue a high priority.

Conducted October 8-10, the poll shows that just 39% of Americans say that campaign finance should be treated as either a top or high priority matter compared with other issues before the Congress -- such as tax cuts, gun control and Social Security. Sixty percent say it should be a low priority or not a priority at all.

Despite this relatively low priority, 20% say the financing of federal campaigns needs a complete overhaul, and another 44% say that major changes are needed. The total of 64% who feel that campaign financing needs fixing is higher than the 57% and 58% who expressed the same opinion about Medicare and Social Security in a June 1999, Gallup poll, and is almost as high as the 68% who expressed that opinion about the HMO system in a July 1999, poll. In January 1997, right after the last presidential election, at a time when questions were raised about the sources of Democratic campaign funds, an even larger percentage of Americans -- 70% -- indicated that the way campaigns are financed needed at least major changes.

Negligible Partisan Differences on Campaign Finance Reform
Although the Republicans and Democrats in the Congress appear to be greatly opposed in their approaches to changing the way federal campaigns are financed, the rank and file party identifiers show few differences on the more general question of whether campaign finance reform is needed. Among Republicans, 38% say the issue should be of high priority, compared with 41% of Democrats. When asked how much change is necessary, 63% of the self-identified members of each party say at least major changes are needed.

Older Americans More Concerned than Younger Americans About Finance Reform
Overall, older Americans appear more concerned about campaign finance reform than younger Americans, both in the priority the issue should receive and how extensively the system needs to be changed. While only 32% of Americans under the age of 30, for example, say that campaign finance should be a high priority for the Congress, that proportion rises to 35% among those in the 30-49 age group, to 43% among those in the 50-64 age group, and to a clear majority -- 53% -- among those 65 and older.

Older Americans are also more likely to want greater changes in the campaign finance system, although the differences are primarily between Americans under 30 and those 30 and older. In the latter group, all agree -- by about 65% to 71% -- that major changes are needed, while only 48% of the youngest group feel that way.

Survey Methods
The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 976 adults, 18 years and older, conducted October 8-10, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

As you may know, Congress will be considering several issues this fall, including tax cuts, Social Security, gun control and campaign finance. In terms of all these issues and others that Congress will be considering, do you think campaign finance should be the TOP priority, a HIGH priority, a LOW priority, or should it not be a priority at all?

Top priority 11%
High priority 28
Low priority 41
Not a priority at all 19
No opinion 1

In general, which of the following statements best represents what you feel about the way federal campaigns are financed -- [ROTATE 1-4/4-1: 1) It needs to be completely overhauled, 2) It needs major changes, 3) It needs minor changes, (or) 4) It is basically fine the way it is]?

  Jan 30-Feb 2, 1997 Oct 8-10, 1999
Completely overhauled 35% 20%
Major changes 35 44
Minor changes 21 26
Fine as is 5 8
No opinion 4 2
  100% 100%

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