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How Money’s Influence in Politics Became a Central Issue in the Presidential Campaign

February 5, 2016 | Adam Smith

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Last night’s explosive exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders about the influence of money in politics and the policy-making process brought to the fore an issue that has been simmering throughout the 2016 race: voters are angry about a campaign finance system that too often benefits the wealthy and well-connected and they are looking for candidates who’ll stand up and say enough is enough.

Below is a list of resources on the issue of money in politics so far this presidential election, including recent polling on the issue, candidate statements on money’s influence in politics, Clinton’s democracy reform plan, Bernie Sanders’ democracy reform plan, and a scorecard on all candidates.

If you’d like to talk with a spokesperson about anything below, please let me know.

THE PUBLIC IS REALLY ANGRY ABOUT BILLIONAIRES “BUYING” POLITICS—AND THE POLLING CONFIRMS IT

Sixty-four percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa said a candidate’s position on money in politics was one of the top three reasons they chose a candidate in Monday’s caucus, according to polling released Thursday by Every Voice and conducted by Public Policy Polling. One in four said it was the top issue for their vote. More than eight in 10 Sanders supporters listed his position on money in politics as among the top three reasons for voting for him. It’s why the results were so close—Clinton has not yet convinced voters she can overcome the influence of her big donors.

Several other polls have been conducted this cycle that ask about money in politics and they all say the same thing—there is broad, bipartisan anger and a desire for politicians to act:

  • Three-quarters of the American people believe their government is corrupt, according to Gallup.
  • Trust in government is at the lowest levels in 50 years, Pew Research Center found in a recent study, though people do have a desire to make it work. Seventy-four percent say elected officials “don’t care what people like me think.”
  • Eighty-four percent of Americans believe money has too much influence in politics.
  • Four in five Americans—including 80% of Republicans—oppose the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision.
  • Ninety-one percent of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers reported in September that they were unsatisfied or “mad as hell” about the amount of money in politics, just three points shy of Democrats who said the same thing.
  • In a poll released by the “gold-standard” Iowa pollster just days before the caucus, 67 percent of Democrats said the system is rigged for the rich and powerful and nearly four-in-ten Republicans felt the same way.

There’s no longer an argument about whether big money unfairly influences the political process—people can feel it in their bones.

EVERY CANDIDATE IS TALKING ABOUT IT

From Jeb Bush to Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton—every single candidate has proactively broached the issue of money in politics on the campaign trail or faced questions from voters. It’s not just the Democrats.

Or, as the Washington Post reported last April, “money in politics is unexpectedly a rising issue in the 2016 campaign.”

Sen. Ted Cruz told the debate audience in South Carolina, “If you’re a Washington lobbyist, if you make your money in and around Washington, things are going great.”

“I do not like a system where a handful of billionaires can fund your Super PAC,” Gov. John Kasich told voters in Iowa last month.

“I in no way am willing to get in the bed with special interest group or lick the boots of billionaire,” Dr. Ben Carson told debate viewers in September.

We’ve been tracking all of these statements from the candidates since the beginning of the race and already have over 250 posts, categorized by candidate. Check it out.

THE ISSUE IS KEY TO SUPPORT FOR BERNIE SANDERS AND DONALD TRUMP

In nearly every stump speech, in the debates, and in interviews, Sanders goes back to his core message: we need a system that works for all of us, not the wealthy donors. Just days before the caucus, he released an ad focused solely on the influence of Wall Street’s campaign contributions. His second-place speech on Monday focused on the issue: “What the American people have said–and by the way, I hear this not just from progressives, from conservatives, from others–and that is we can no longer continue to have a corrupt campaign finance system.”

Donald Trump’s message that he can’t be bought because he’s self-financed (even if he isn’t self-financed) has been resonating, too. It must be noted that his bigotry and intolerance undermine his ability to grasp the mantle of reform or connect with many Americans. But, as one Iowa voter told CNN, “I just believe our country is so corrupt with our politicians now that I don’t think there’s anyone else in there other than Donald Trump that’s not corrupt.”

The day after Iowa, the New York Times summed it up this way:

“The vote here in Iowa was a portrait of red-hot America, so disaffected that it turned to a pugilistic evangelical Republican who calls for demolition of a system saturated with corruption. And it sent a forceful message to Democratic leaders that it was unwilling to put aside its resentment of Wall Street and corporate America to crown a lifelong party insider who has amassed millions in speaking fees from the big banks.”

Democratic support for Sanders and Republican support for Trump are based on some of the same public antipathy to big money politics.

THE DEMOCRATS HAVE ALL RELEASED STRONG, COMPREHENSIVE REFORM PLANS

Sanders and Clinton (and O’Malley before dropping out) each released strong, comprehensive democracy reform plans last year that mirror the Fight Big Money Agenda forwarded by money-in-politics groups last summer. Sanders’ and Clinton’s plans meet five important principles:

  • Everybody’s participates: we need to empower small donations with matching funds to give regular people a bigger voice in politics;
  • Everyone’s voice is heard: there are meaningful limits on the amount of money wealthy interests can pour into campaigns and the promise of out democracy—our right to vote—is protected and expanded.
  • Everyone knows—through legislation and the regulatory process, voters have the information they need to know who’s trying to influence our elected officials.
  • Everyone is held accountable—they’ll appoint justices to the Supreme Court who’ll overturn Citizens United and protect the right to vote, along with pushing Congress for a constitutional amendment
  • Everyone plays by common sense rules—they’ll work to strengthen the Federal Election Commission (or reconstitute it) and encourage the Department of Justice to hold election law violators accountable.

Just today, Clinton and Sanders responded to a question from the Concord Monitor about what they’ll do to address the issue.

A handful of Republicans have talked about plans to slow the revolving door between Congress and K Street or sever the ties between government contractors and campaign contributions. All these plans are laid out in a scorecard recently released by Every Voice.

IT’S NOT GOING AWAY

The issue isn’t going away. On both sides of the aisle, plenty of candidates have the money to draw the primary out for a few more months. But soon, as you’re seeing with Trump, voters will get tired of simply hearing everyone’s bought and they’re not. Sanders needs to talk about his comprehensive solutions, not just attack the problem. Clinton needs to come up with a better answer on Wall Street criticism and frame it as a systemic problem she’s working to change. Voters want to know what candidates will do to fix the system. The diagnoses is clear–they want a cure.

And more than just talking about it, candidates could offer their support to efforts across the country where people are coming together–and winning–common sense policies to give everyday people a bigger voice in politics.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.

Every Voice and Every Voice Center have recently come under new leadership. We will be expanding and diversifying our efforts to promote a democracy that works for all of us and responds to the voices of everyday people. Watch this space for specifics later in 2019.