Americans are less concerned about the amount of money in politics than about where the dough comes from, according to a new survey done by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
And those voters rank constituents last when asked what controls the way members of the U.S. House and Senate vote. They put campaign contributors, political parties, and lobbyists in the most influential spots.
The Internet poll of 2,100 adults was done for UT by YouGov/Polimetrix from October 13-22 and has a margin of error of 2.1 percent. A bit of disclosure: The researchers include Jim Henson and Daron Shaw, who conducted the UT/Texas Tribune poll released a couple of weeks ago, and that poll was conducted by the same firm.
The survey was done in conjunction with an event being held today on money and politics at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT. "The poll exposes significant gaps between perceptions of the role of money in politics, the salience of campaign finance as a public policy priority and the public's understanding of the basic mechanics of campaign finance," said Brian Roberts, the UT government professor overseeing the project.
On questions about the smell of money, 62 percent said their own votes had little or nothing to do with the amount of money a candidate raises; 58 percent said the sources of those contributions, however, would be a factor when they cast their vote. Read a list of possible campaign reforms and asked to rate them, the favorites were free and equal airtime on television for the candidates, more authority for campaign finance regulators, replacing the Federal Election Commission with a more independent agency, shortening the campaign season to four weeks, and public financing in lieu of individual and political action committee funding of campaigns.
The respondents were split on campaign finance limits, with 45 percent agreeing that people should be able to give as much as they want and 43 percent disagreeing. More than half agree with federal laws barring unions and corporations and most non-profits from advertising for a month before primaries and two months before general elections. More than half said they base part of their purchasing decisions on whether the companies selling the products "take strong and occasionally controversial positions" on political questions.
Most of the adults surveyed — 85 percent — identified themselves as registered voters. Only 62 percent said they vote in "every" or "almost every" election, and 76 percent said they're interested or very interested in politics.
Their political knowledge varied: 71 percent correctly named Joe Biden as vice president; 20 percent knew John Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; 49 percent could name Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the U.S. House, and 83 percent knew the Democrats have the majority in the Senate.
Their knowledge of campaign finance laws was shaky, with 51 percent saying they don't know enough about the federal McCain-Feingold law to have an opinion about it and another 10 percent just saying they don't have an opinion.
"Americans do not know very much about the intricacies of the federal election campaign system," Shaw said. "They erroneously assume that large contributions from rich corporations are the rule when it comes to money and politics. And they think that politicians, especially at the federal level, are basically corrupt."
The people surveyed think political corruption is worst at the national level. More than two-thirds believe members of Congress base their votes on campaign contributions rather than constituents "often" or "all the time." Another 58 percent believe members of Congress "often" or "all the time" demand contributions from "wealthy but otherwise reluctant" donors who have interests in upcoming legislative issues. The average level of ethics and honesty in Congress? Two-thirds say it's "not so good" or "poor." They think a little better of their own representatives, with about a third giving the local folks those low ratings.
Asked whether corruption in the U.S. Congress is a problem, 48 percent called it "very serious" and another 34 percent called it "somewhat serious." They think it's gotten worse in the last ten years.
Who has the greatest influence on votes in Congress? Big companies and political lobbyists tied for first, followed by "the wealthy", political action committees, labor unions, trade associations, and the news media.
UT plans to release the rest of the poll later today, at the conference.