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No Public Outcry For Campaign Finance Reform

Americans Unphased by Democratic Fundraising Charges


As campaign finance reform slips from the top of the legislative agenda, its fate may increasingly depend on the amount of pressure Americans put on Congress and President Clinton to accomplish it. Recent Gallup polls suggest that there is, in fact, very little pressure. To be sure, Americans are highly supportive of proposals to reduce the amount of money spent on political campaigns, but they place it low on their list of priorities for Congress to take up.

In his State of the Union address this month, Clinton urged Congress to pass campaign finance reform by July 4th. Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold have co-sponsored a comprehensive bill to restrict the amount of PAC and "soft" money in campaigns. In the meantime, however, resistance to that bill has been mounting on Capitol Hill and campaign finance reform failed to make the key priority list agreed to by Clinton and congressional leaders.

But if the question is whether there will be a political price to pay for failing to enact reform, the answer from recent Gallup polls appears to be "no."

Sign of Public Backlash
First, and perhaps most importantly, Americans tell Gallup that campaign finance is not a critical issue for them this year. In a survey taken earlier this month, less than half of Americans (41%) rated campaign finance reform as either a top or a high priority for Congress and the President to deal with in 1997. Issues such as education, crime, Social Security and even defense spending are of much greater public concern.

Although majorities appear to want changes in the way federal campaigns are financed, Americans are not clamoring for the kind of dramatic change that might be required to overcome congressional resistance.

Only one third say the system needs a complete overhaul, while another third say that major changes are warranted. The remaining third believe that, at most, only minor changes are needed.

Finally, despite all of the news and negative punditry surrounding the Democrats' 1996 fundraising activities, Americans say these charges are not very serious, and do not believe that illegal political influence resulted from the contributions. Only 46% think the charges involving illegal foreign contributions to the Democrats' and Clinton's legal defense funds are "very serious." About one-third consider these charges "somewhat serious" while 20% consider them not serious. Similarly, only about four in ten Americans consider the White House "coffees" with contributors or the alleged improper use of government resources at the White House for fundraising activities to be "very serious" charges.

Few Americans believe the Clinton administration was engaged in quid pro quo arrangements with political donors in 1996. Only 28% think that some major donors received actual changes in government policy; 41% thought they merely received special access to the White House.

One reason that more Americans don't take these charges against the Democrats seriously may be that they are not highly concerned about influence peddling. Only 53%, a bare majority of respondents in the recent survey, said that campaign contributions have a great deal of influence on the policies supported by elected officials. The rest think campaign money has only a moderate amount of influence or not much influence at all.

Another possible reason for the subdued public reaction to the fundraising charges: Americans consider it nothing new. Almost two-thirds (63%) think that the contacts that took place last year between political donors and the Clinton White House are typical of the way both parties have the used the White House in recent years to raise campaign money. Only one-quarter think the Clinton administration has been less ethical than other administrations in this respect.

And despite the heavy focus on Democratic fundraising, when asked which political party's fundraising activities were more unethical in 1996, only 19% pick the Democrats while two thirds say the two parties fundraising ethics were about the same.

Anything to Limit Spending
While Americans are not insisting on a complete overhaul of the campaign finance system, they do overwhelmingly support any campaign reform initiative that would reduce the amount of money spent on political campaigns. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the November 1996 elections found two-thirds to over three-quarters of Americans in favor of such proposals:

* 81% favor limiting business contributions to congressional campaigns
* 79% favor limiting the amount of money candidates can raise and spend
* 76% favor limiting labor union contributions to Congressional campaigns
* 71% favor limiting "soft" money -- the amount individuals can contribute to the national parties
* 67% favor limiting the amount of personal funds a candidate can spend on his own campaign

One proposal which receives substantially less support is prohibiting legal aliens living in the United States from contributing to political campaigns. Only 55% favor this kind of restriction on the political expression of non-citizens. And less than a majority, 43%, would favor establishment of full federal funding of campaigns to replace the current system of private contributions.

Recent results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,056 adults, 18 years and older, conducted January 31-February 2, 1997. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be 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.

In general, which of the following statements best represents what you feel about the way federal campaigns are financed: It needs to be completely overhauled; it needs major changes; it needs minor changes; it is basically fine the way it is.

Complete overhaul 35%
Major changes 35
Minor changes 21
Fine as is 5
No opinion 4

If you believe either political party's campaign fundraising in 1996 was unethical, which party's fundraising do you think was more unethical -- the Republican Party's, the Democratic Party's or were they about the same?

Republican Party's 9%
Democratic Party's 19
About the same 67
Neither party unethical (vol.) 1
No opinion 4

Now we want to know the extent to which you think campaign contributions influence the policies supported by elected officials. Would you say they influence elected officials -- a great deal, a moderate amount, not much or not at all?

Great deal 53%
Moderate amount 33
Not much 8
Not at all 3
No opinion 3

In your view, during the 1996 presidential campaign, did the Clinton administration a) Actually change some government policies in exchange for campaign donations or did the Clinton administration b) Just give special access to major campaign donors, but make no actual changes in government. (ROTATED)

Changed policies 28%
Just gave special access 41
No opinion 31

Do you think that the contacts that took place between political donors and the Clinton White House last year were typical of the way most recent presidential administrations of both parties used the White House to raise campaign money, or, were they less ethical than most recent administrations in this respect? (ROTATED)

Typical 63%
Less ethical 26
Not familiar (vol.) 9
No opinion 2

Please say whether you would favor or oppose the following changes in federal campaign finance laws. First, limiting the amount of money a candidate for federal office, such as President and Congress, can contribute to his or her own political campaign; next, prohibiting all non-citizens, even if they are legal residents of the United States, from contributing to political campaigns; limiting the amount of money individual citizens can contribute to the national political parties; limiting the total amount of money labor unions can contribute to U.S. House and Senate campaigns each election; limiting the total amount of money which business and industry can contribute to U.S. House and Senate campaigns each election; establishing a new campaign finance system where federal campaigns are funded by the government, and all contributions from individuals and private groups are banned; putting a limit on the amount of money candidates for the U.S. House and Senate can raise and spend on their political campaigns. (RANDOM ORDER)

  Favor Oppose No Opinion
Limit candidate's contributions 67% 30 3
Ban non-citizen contributions 55% 41 4
Limit individual contributions 71% 26 3
Limit labor union contributions 76% 20 4
Limit business contributions 81% 16 3
Establish new finance system 43% 52 5
Campaign spending cap 79% 19 2

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