May 8, 2018

Most Americans want to limit campaign spending, say big donors have greater political influence

Americans overwhelmingly support limits on political campaign spending, and most think new laws could effectively reduce the role of money in politics.

A recent Pew Research Center report finds several indications of public concern over campaign spending. There is widespread – and bipartisan – agreement that people who make large political donations should not have more political influence than others, but Americans largely don’t see that as a description of the country today.

And there is extensive support for reining in campaign spending: 77% of the public says “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns; just 20% say they should be able to spend as much as they want.

A somewhat smaller majority (65%) says that new campaign finance laws could be written that would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics, while 31% say any new laws would not be effective.

Democrats are more likely to support limits on campaign spending than are Republicans, and there is a similar gap in views on whether effective laws could be written. Still, 71% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say there should be limits on campaign spending and 54% say new laws that would be effective in limiting the influence of money in politics could be written. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, even larger majorities favor spending limits (85%) and think new laws would be effective (77%).

Nearly three-quarters of the public (74%) says it is very important that major political donors not have more influence than others, while an additional 16% view this as somewhat important.

However, only a relatively small share of the public feels this is actually the case today. About a quarter (26%) feel that the statement “people who give a lot of money to elected officials do not have more influence than others” describes the country very or somewhat well; roughly seven-in-ten (72%) say this does not describe the country well, with 43% saying it describes it “not at all well.”

Across the political spectrum, few people think that big donors do not command more influence than others: Only about a quarter of those in both parties say this describes the country well. But Democrats are more likely than Republicans (50% vs. 35%) to say this statement describes the country not at all well.

Those who have contributed to candidates or campaigns themselves in recent years – the vast majority of whom make donations of less than $250 – are particularly likely to reject the characterization of the country as a place where people who give a lot of money to elected officials do not have more influence than others: 50% say this does not describe the country at all well, compared with 41% of those who have not given a political contribution in the past five years.

Contributors more likely to see elected officials as responsive

Those who have contributed money to a political candidate or group in the past year are much more likely than those who have not made a recent contribution to say that their representative in Congress would help them if they had a problem. They are also more likely to say ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington if they are willing to make the effort.

Overall, 37% of Americans say that they feel it is at least somewhat likely their representative would help them with a problem if they contacted her or him. However, about half (53%) of those who have given money to a political candidate or group in the last year believe their representative would help. Belief that one’s member of Congress will help them with a problem is highest (63%) among the subset of donors who have given more than $250 to a candidate or campaign in the past year.

A similar pattern is seen on the question of whether or not people feel ordinary citizens can make a difference. Among those who did not make a political contribution in the past year, about half say there is a lot ordinary citizens can do to influence the government in Washington. By comparison, 66% of donors, including 74% of those who gave more than $250, say there is a lot ordinary citizens can do to make a difference.

Topics: Elections and Campaigns

  1. is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.