Briefing Paper No. 60

Public Opinion and Campaign Finance: A Skeptical Look at Senator McCain’s Claims

By David M. Primo
January 31, 2001

Executive Summary

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other advocates of additional regulations on campaign finance argue that spending on elections has caused public cynicism about and mistrust of American government. They also believe that public opinion indicates that Congress should move immediately to pass new campaign finance regulations. This paper uses public opinion data to test both claims.

McCain and his allies are wrong on both counts. The data show that campaign spending could not have caused increases in public mistrust of government—indeed, rising soft money spending has been followed by increases (not decreases) in public trust in government—and that there is no statistical relationship over time between campaign spending and public trust in American government. The data also show that the public assigns a low priority to altering campaign finance regulations.

Both findings militate against the current attempt in Congress to pass the McCain-Feingold regulations on campaign fundraising. New regulations on campaign finance will not increase public trust in government because campaign spending did not cause public cynicism. Moreover, contrary to Senator McCain’s opinion, the low priority given campaign finance regulations by the public suggests that the McCain-Feingold bill should be dealt with much later in the 107th Congress, after more pressing issues have been addressed.

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David M. Primo is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University.