WASHINGTON -- The Federal Election Commission has just received the results of three focus-group discussions on taxpayer contributions to presidential campaigns, and the politicians are not going to like what they hear.
The 53 voters who took part in three cities -- Portland, Ore., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Fort Lee, N.J. -- were so bummed out on politics and government waste that the moderators of the discussions found it hard to keep them on the points raised in the focus groups. "Their anger associated with those concerns contaminated their consideration of presidential campaign funding and features associated with the program," says the report filed by Market Decisions Corporation of Portland, which conducted the discussions.
The report also says the anger was so widespread that it tarred all politicians with the same brush. "A lot of conversation referred the unnamed 'they' who were probably senators and representatives," it says. "Respondents did not seem to make a distinction between presidential campaign funding and the abuses they perceived by federal officeholders. Because of that mingling, perception of the presidential funding seems to be a victim of guilt by association."
Furthermore, in a nice bit of irony, President Bush, the chief beneficiary of the 1988 presidential campaign fund, which was bankrolled by the one-dollar voluntary check-off on your federal income-tax return, was significantly responsible for the voter anger, according to the marketing analysis organization. "There were . . . views expressed in nearly every group," the report says, "that 'read my lips' had lost the trust of voters and was put in the same negative bag as congressmen." That phrase, as even your 4-year-old son must know by now, was Bush's big vote-getting pledge in 1988 not to raise taxes, which he subsequently broke last year in agreeing to the deficit-reduction compromise with Congress.
The general picture painted by the focus-group discussions is not an optimistic one for the Federal Election Commission, which is facing an estimated $6 million shortfall in the $187 million it figures it will need to provide dollar-for-dollar subsidies for 1992 presidential primary candidates, for the Republican and Democratic conventions and for the two party nominees in the fall election.
The discussions indicated not only that voters are alienated from politicians -- no big surprise there -- but that they don't have much idea of what benefits the subsidy program is supposed to achieve or where the money goes. One reason may be that few of those surveyed remembered it was an outgrowth of the Watergate affair. As one said, "I was only 7 years old at the time." So much for the state of public education, but that's another matter.
The relatively few participants in the discussions who knew something about the campaign fund said they had read what they knew in the newspapers and, the report said, "there was no recollection of information on television, which is the primary source of news for Americans, or on the radio." There's a nice little irony there, too, since television advertising is where all presidential campaigns sink the largest chunk of their money.
Specific voter comments underscored the degree of disenchantment with any use of taxpayer money to bankroll campaigns. "I'd give it definite thumbs down," said one participant. "Incumbents still outspend others [and] use money for their personal use." And another: "Candidates still get bought, so it's not working too well." And still another: "Campaigns are dirty [and] have a lot of negativity." And how's this for cynicism: "I'm not aware of any specific abuses, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn there were some. In fact, I figured there were some."
When the Chattanooga group heard that some of the check-off money went to finance the party conventions, here was one response: "I don't want any money going to a drunken brawl. A week-long party. It's gotten away from its original intent. The conventions don't pick candidates. That's done in the back rooms, probably before the convention is even held."
But all is not lost. Respondents did see virtue in the program as an equalizer for "poorer" candidates, for underfunded Democrats against posh Republicans and as a way to diminish the influence of big money. They seemed to feel that what's needed is more information about the program, which doubtless will spur the FEC to get the word out better, courtesy of -- who else? -- the taxpayers.