John McCain Is Wrong

April 2, 2001 • Commentary
By David M. Primo

The Senate votes today on campaign finance “reform.” Sen. John McCain, like all campaign finance reformers, has based his crusade on two arguments: 1) spending on elections has caused public cynicism and mistrust toward American government, and 2) the public is clamoring for reform. Both claims are false.

Experts have hard data on both public trust and campaign spending. Every two years since 1964, the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies have polled the public on the level of trust they have in government. Since 1977, the Federal Election Commission has kept data on congressional spending. During that period, campaign spending has risen. If McCain is right about campaign spending causing public cynicism, trust in government should have fallen continually since 1977.

In fact, citizen trust in government dropped dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, it has gone up and down; on the whole, trust in government remains slightly above its nadir in 1980. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the major drop in citizen trust took place before the run‐​up in spending. Second, the evidence shows only a minute relationship between trust and campaign spending. In fact, the statistical relationship between spending and mistrust is very close to zero.

Cynicism toward politics is clearly rooted in something far deeper than campaign contributions. Mistrust of the federal government grew sharply from 1964 to 1980, a period that included the Vietnam War, Watergate, rising inflation and economic stagnation. The period was filled with examples of corruption, deceit, incompetence and chicanery. The sharp decline in public trust responded to concrete events.

Sen. McCain’s obsession with soft money is also misplaced. Soft money spending grew after two liberalizations of the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1978 and 1979. In 1995 and 1996, President Clinton and Vice President Gore raised significant sums of soft money leading to the “selling of the Lincoln bedroom” scandals and numerous investigations that lasted throughout the 1990s. The data show, however, that public trust in government rose for about six years after the soft money liberalizations of 1978–79. Similarly, public trust in government increased throughout and after the period of the Clinton soft money controversies. Whatever else might be true, soft money does not cause more public mistrust of government.

Most polls do show that the public desires changes to a “broken” system. Some polls even show significant support for limiting campaign expenditures, a clear violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, this support is quite thin. In an examination of nearly a dozen polls taken during the 2000 campaign by outfits such as The Wall Street Journal, FoxNews and Harris, none found more than 2 percent of the population mentioning campaign finance reform as a top one or two issue. McCain is fond of using the American people’s “demands” as a justification for his attempts to stifle political communication. This is hardly supported by the data. The American people are far more concerned about real issues like taxation, the economy and education.

New regulations on campaign finance will not increase public trust in government because campaign spending did not cause public cynicism. And the public is not clamoring for new regulations on campaign finance. In fact, the public believes Congress has better things to do with its time. On that score, Congress would do well to listen to the people.

About the Author
David M. Primo is a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford University and author of �Public Opinion and Campaign Finance: A Skeptical Look at Senator McCain’s Claims� (Cato Briefing Paper No. 60, Jan. 31, 2001).