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Americans Not Holding Their Breath On Campaign Finance Reform

Americans Not Holding Their Breath On Campaign Finance Reform

Clinton Still Riding High Despite Fundraising Issues


PRINCETON, NJ -- Campaign finance reform is like world peace: Everyone thinks it's a great idea and supports efforts to secure it, but almost no one expects it to happen.

According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this week, the U.S. public widely favors every major initiative proposed this year in Washington to curb the power of money in politics. Most importantly, by a 63% to 24% margin, Americans support new restrictions on large "soft money" donations to the political parties, a central component of the disputed McCain-Feingold reform bill. That bill was essentially killed this week in the Senate by the Republican Majority Leader.

Seven in ten Americans also favor new restrictions on labor union leaders' ability to spend members' dues for political purposes, a restriction which the Democrats filibustered against this week.

Aside from their positions on these specific issues, Americans seem primed for sweeping reform of the way elections are financed. The public is deeply cynical about the influence of money in the political process, with 77% saying that special interests, rather than the best interests of the country, carry more weight with lawmakers. In addition, 59% think elections are for sale to the candidate with the most money, rather than decided on the basis of who is the better candidate.

Public Doubtful About Real Change
Wanting reform and expecting results, however, are two different matters. The Gallup poll finds Americans decidedly skeptical about whether new laws restricting money in campaigns will change the situation in American politics. Three out of five respondents, 59%, say that special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington regardless of what new laws are passed. And despite the extensive amount of coverage given this year to alleged 1996 campaign fundraising abuses, the public is about evenly divided, 46% to 50%, as to whether the problems are much worse today than in the past, or just the same as always.

Paradox in Views Toward Clinton
This public cynicism about campaign fundraising may be a factor in explaining the seeming paradox of Clinton's maintaining high job approval ratings at the same time that most Americans think he is guilty of a number of serious fundraising abuses.

The latest poll shows 55% of Americans approve of the job Clinton is doing as president, while just 36% disapprove. This is down slightly from the 60% or better approval rating he has enjoyed over the last two months, but is comparable to his ratings earlier in 1997 and much of last year leading up to his re-election. Attitudes towards Clinton on a personal level show a little more erosion, with 56% expressing favorable opinion of him, compared to 40% who have an unfavorable opinion. This ratio was as high as 63%-32% in recent months.

Still, President Clinton has maintained the support of a majority of Americans despite a continuous barrage of news and criticism concerning his participation in possibly unethical or illegal fundraising. According to this week's Gallup poll, a majority of Americans believe most of the fundraising charges in the news are true, and two-thirds favor the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the charges against Clinton (as they do with Al Gore).

Many Reasons to Appoint an Independent Investigator
Gallup respondents were asked to evaluate six major issues raised concerning President Clinton's 1996 fundraising activities. This evaluation included one question about the nature of each activity -- whether each is serious enough to warrant investigation by an independent counsel -- and a second question about whether or not Clinton, himself, had engaged in that activity.

The poll finds that a majority think Clinton did, in fact, engage in four out of the six activities, and that all but one are serious enough to warrant independent investigation.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans think that Clinton did make fundraising calls from the White House, that he gave contributors special access to meet him in exchange for their donations, and that he traded donations for overnight stays in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom. A majority think that the special access and Lincoln Bedroom charges are serious enough to deserve special investigation by an independent counsel. Americans are not as concerned about the phone calls, with less than a majority, 46%, saying they should be investigated.

More than half of Americans, 56%, also believe that Clinton knowingly took illegal foreign contributions, a charge viewed by the public as the most serious of all. Three-quarters believe this charge warrants investigation by a special counsel.

About half, 49%, think Clinton was willing to change government policy in exchange for donations. Slightly fewer, 46%, believe Clinton was aware of an illegal plan for the Teamsters' Union to raise money for the Democratic Party. However, two-thirds of Americans view these charges as very serious in nature.

Gore's Numbers Sinking
While Clinton's numbers have taken only a small hit in recent weeks, public opinion of Vice-president Al Gore has been on a long, slow slide since last year's election. Favorable opinion of Gore was 61% in October of last year, with just 31% feeling unfavorably toward him. His positive rating dropped to 57% by March of this year, 55% in June, 51% in September, and is now 47%.

However, Americans are no more likely to believe that Al Gore did anything illegal or unethical in his fundraising than did Clinton. About one-quarter of the public think Clinton and Gore each did something illegal, roughly one-third consider their actions unethical, while another third believe each did nothing seriously wrong.

The fact that Al Gore's ratings are now substantially lower than the President's may reflect the different expectations the public holds for Clinton and Gore. The fundraising revelations could be hurting Gore more than Clinton because Clinton has already survived many political storms, while Gore's character has rarely been challenged until now.

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 872 adults, 18 years and older, conducted October 3-5, 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 4 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.

Thinking about any new campaign finance laws that might be passed, which of the following is more important to you -- protecting the freedom of individuals to support political candidates and parties financially, or, protecting government from excessive influence by campaign contributors? (ROTATED)

Protecting individuals 39%
Protecting government 56
No opinion 5

As you may know, the federal government now limits the amount of money that individual Americans can donate to political candidates but the law allows people to donate as much money as they want to political parties for general political activities. Do you think the campaign finance laws should limit the amount of money that people can donate both to political parties and to individual candidates, or, do you think they should only limit the amount of money that people can donate to individual candidates? (ROTATED)

Limit only party donations 63%
Limit also donations to individuals 24
Other/neither (vol.) 10
No opinion 3

[The remaining 4 questions were asked in random order.]Next, I'm going to read several pairs of statements. After I read each pair, please tell me which statement you agree with more.

Which do you agree with more -- elected officials in Washington are mostly influenced by what is in the best interests of the country, or, elected officials in Washington are mostly influenced by the pressure they receive on issues from major campaign contributors? (ROTATED)

By best interests of country 19%
By contributors' pressure 77
Other/neither (vol.) 2
No opinion 2

Which do you agree with more -- the problems with campaign financing are much worse today than in the past, or, the problems with campaign financing are no better or worse than they've always been? (ROTATED)

Worse 46%
No worse 50
Other/neither (vol.) 2
No opinion 2

Which do you agree with more -- elections are generally for sale to the candidate who can raise the most money, or, elections are generally won on the basis of who is the best candidate? (ROTATED)

Elections for sale 59%
Best candidate wins 37
Other/neither (vol.) 2
No opinion 2

Which do you agree with more -- major changes to the laws governing campaign finance could succeed in reducing the power of special interests in Washington, or, no matter what new laws are passed, special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington? (ROTATED)

Reform could succeed 36%
Special interests prevail 59
Other/neither (vol.) 1
No opinion 4

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