I’m so, so tired of political journalists (including some who I think are generally excellent) misconstruing certain types of poll results. And of pollsters not asking the obvious direct question they need to ask. [Addendum added.]
If ever there were a cycle that seemed poised for a serious argument over what to do — if anything — about the torrents of money sloshing through our politics, you’d think it would be this one. We’re seeing a parade of billionaire sugar daddies looking to sponsor individual GOP candidates. A profusion of clever tactics such as turning over campaign operations to a friendly Super PAC, and running a full-blown presidential campaign while pretending you haven’t declared. Outside groups on both sides pledging enormous expenditures. Relentless media attention to foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. And so on.
Yet despite all this, the chances of turning campaign finance into a major or compelling issue appear remote: A new poll today finds that fewer than one percent of Americans see it as the most important issue facing the country.
— Morning Plum: Americans don’t care too much about big money in politics, Greg Sargent, this morning
Aaaaargh. Might this be because most poll respondents think they’re being asked directly about the issues that they want politicians and officeholders to address, rather than, y’know, the reasons why politicians and officeholders aren’t dealing effectively—or at all—with those problems and often make policy that worsens those problems?
It turns out that the answer is, yes. And in the paragraphs following the above-quoted ones, Sargent himself, by discussing the poll questions and results in more detail, makes that very, very clear. Sargent continues:
To be sure, the new New York Times/CBS News poll does find that Americans across party lines think money exerts too much influence over the political process. Eighty-four percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, believe this. Crucially, the poll shows that majorities of Americans believe this gives the rich more influence over the process, and that they believe public officials reward big donors:
“Two thirds think wealthy Americans have a better chance than others of influencing the election process, while just 31 percent say all Americans have an equal chance to do so….Americans see a frequent quid pro quo when it comes to contributing to an election campaign and receiving benefits once a candidate is in office. Fifty-five percent of Americans think politicians enact policies to benefit their financial contributors most of the time, while another 30 percent think this happens sometimes. Just 13 percent think this only happens rarely or never.”
And get this: 54 percent do not believe political donations should be protected as free speech, and 78 percent support limits on contributions to groups unaffiliated with a candidate. Yet here’s the bad news for campaign finance reformers:
“Very few Americans prioritize campaign finance over other domestic issues when asked to name the most important problem facing the country today. Americans’ top issue priority continues to be the economy and jobs; health care and immigration follow. Less than one percent volunteer campaign fundraising as the most important issue facing the country.”
And then as an afterthought, he adds:
In fairness, the poll reached this conclusion through an open-ended question that asked people to name the single top issue, so who knows how much this means. But even some reform-minded Democrats have lamented the difficulty of turning campaign finance it into a motivating issue.
I love Sargent’s blog and read it religiously most weekdays. But he, like so many other political journalists, conflates what are two separate categories of issues and draw the wrong conclusion. And it’s a vicious circle: With the single exception of Elizabeth Warren and now Bernie Sanders, politicians whom the news media pay attention to never, ever, ever directly tie in a particular public policy—mainly, legislation or the lack of it—to actual actions (huge campaign donations, superPac funding, lobbying, and the proverbial revolving door, with industry lobbyists or representatives of, say, the Koch brothers, writing legislation and blocking legislation. Only Elizabeth Warren actually does that and gets some genuine, meaningful media attention for it.
Obviously, neither Warren nor Sanders is cowed by the results of the incessant polls that ask the right question regarding the usual-suspect issues that poll respondents think is what they’re being asked about—the economy; immigration; foreign policy; healthcare. Neither Warren nor Sanders confuses the answer to that question with an answer to a question about whether the respondent thinks there is a tie-in between the things they think of as an “issue” as meant in a poll question, and whether the respondent thinks a key reason for the existing problem and the government’s failure to adequately address it, and instead exacerbates it, is that public policy is controlled by the very few, very wealthy people who pay for campaigns in this era.
Sargent links to the CBS online article about the poll, which also says that “[m]ost who think changes are needed are not optimistic that such changes will be forthcoming: 58 percent are pessimistic that changes will actually be made.”
Well … yes. Exactly. And Warren and, now, Sanders may well succeed in ending the tautology. They understand that actual specific information showing direct tie-ins with specific policies or lack of policy would feed upon itself and show that, yes, in fact changes can be made. But only with a truly new breed of elected officials.
ADDENDUM: Politico’s top article today is titled “Did Elizabeth Warren go too far this time?” But it’s subtitled “The Massachusetts senator’s attack on Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White causes backlash on Wall Street.” The article, which is lengthy, discusses a 13-page letter Warren sent this morning to SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, absolutely ripping White for … well, you should read the article, all the way to the end.
By the end of the article, you’ll wonder why somewhere in the middle of it, it says that Warren’s influence seems to be on the wane and that the letter probably will hasten the waning. The article has two co-authors, and the headline would not have been written by either of them. So that might be why the article is part details and background, and part what Wall Street and the White House want as the media’s take on the letter’s contents and fallout. I did a double-take when I read this sentence: “The backlash against Warren was the latest indication that populist firebrand’s efforts to push for tougher financial regulation may be losing some momentum.”
The backlash against Warren is from Wall Street, the SEC, Mary Jo White’s office, and the CEOs and lobbyists who want the TPP treaty ratified and are selling it as a trade agreement even though, mostly, it’s not. Warren (and others) object not to the actual trade provisions but to parts of it that do not concern trade as such. And the SEC rules under Dodd-Frank that Warren angrily says the SEC keeps delaying concern transparency of corporations concerning the CEO’s pay as compared to that of the company’s ordinary employees, and concern disclosure of the identities of the tax-exempt organizations that receive corporate donations, and the amounts of the donations.
The public backlash against this has begun, the Politico article says. Just call JPMorgan’s corporate offices and lobbying firms. They’ll tell ya!
As for Wall Street’s public relations offering on it, the part of it that the article discusses with specificity sounds to me ridiculous:
“I don’t understand Sen. Warren’s criticism of White for recusing herself where there is a conflict of interest,” said Wayne Abernathy, a top lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, referring to Warren’s criticism that White isn’t involved in SEC actions when her husband’s law firm represents the companies involved. “Is it that she would prefer that the chairman go forward and participate in enforcement cases despite the conflict of interest?”
No, actually, it’s that because her husband is a partner in one of the premier New York law firms that represent the biggest financial institutions against the SEC and Justice Department during investigations and in civil and criminal litigation. And that her recusal means that the SEC is routinely deadlocked about whether to bring charges in such cases because the remaining SEC commissioners are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. How convenient.
Relatedly, Roger Cohen has a terrific column today in the New York Times. But you have to read to the end to get the relation.
Added 6/2 at 8:58 p.m.