Voters tuning in to campaign reform

April 05, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For all the recent talk about campaign finance reform, the results of the 2000 presidential primaries seemed to confirm an old contention -- that in the final reckoning, it's simply not a voting issue. The two most prominent advocates, John McCain and Bill Bradley, both lost.

Mr. Bradley failed to win a single primary on the Democratic side. Republican McCain won the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries impressively using campaign finance reform as one of his chief pitches -- until the unprecedentedly prodigious fund raising of George W. Bush buried him.

Now, however, comes a public-opinion survey by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, which says that according to 800 likely voters, campaign finance reform has such wide appeal today that even "self-identified conservative Republicans" favor it by a wide margin.

The particular reform proposal presented to voters in the poll, called "Clean Money," is being advanced by Public Campaign, a nonpartisan, nonprofit booster of reform, which incidentally also commissioned the poll. It calls for full public financing of all federal elections for candidates who agree to accept no private money -- a much more extensive approach than the chief reform legislation before Congress that would simply ban unregulated "soft money."

According to the Mellman poll, Democrats and independents surveyed favor it by about 7-1, all Republicans by more than 2-1, and conservative Republicans by 51 percent to 32 percent. Overall support for general campaign finance reform, the poll found, has gone up from 52 percent nearly four years ago to 59 percent.

While the survey indicated the yearning for campaign finance reform transcends party, it provided particular ammunition for the Democrats by asking the voters what they thought about Mr. Bush's feat of raising more than $70 million. Some 71 percent, including half of the Republicans surveyed, agreed with the statement that it was "excessive and a sign of what's wrong with politics," to only 20 percent who agreed that it was "impressive and a sign of his broad-based support." And 40 percent agreed that Mr. Bush had won the Republican nomination because of "the amount of money he raised."

The survey, notably, asked no questions about Mr. Gore's fund-raising this year or in the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign of 1996, for which he has been widely criticized. Nick Nyar, executive director of Public Campaign, said one reason for focusing on Mr. Bush was because of the huge amount of money he raised and because he was "the first serious major candidate" for president to reject public funding so that he would be free to raise unlimited amounts. Three earlier candidates, John B. Connally, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, also turned down the federal subsidy.

The poll was taken prior to the release of Mr. Gore's latest campaign reform proposal, which would substitute private contributions with no strings attached to a "Democracy Endowment" to bankroll all eligible congressional candidates. The moderate Democratic Leadership Council quickly commended the proposal as "a politically gutsy move for Mr. Gore, given low public support for public financing of campaigns." Mr. Gore, like Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain, also supported campaign finance reform in the primaries, but not nearly as conspicuously as they did. His new proposal has already won praise as a good start from such reformers as Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 and Edward Kangas, co-chair of the Committee for Economic Development, a high-powered business group that last fall indicated it was fed up with being dunned.

The latest survey will encourage the reformers, but it is no substitute for increased support in Congress, where too many incumbents, and Republicans especially, see nothing very wrong with the money-raising status quo that keeps them in office. Only when voters who want campaign finance reform go beyond telling pollsters so, and start casting their ballots for supporters and against obstructionists, is it going to happen.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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