Campaign Finance and American DemocracyWhat the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters

Campaign Finance and American DemocracyWhat the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters

David M. Primo and Jeffrey D. Milyo

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780226712802

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Campaign finance reformers, politicians, and academics have been arguing for decades that democracy is imperiled by a threat that permeates all of politics: money. Money in politics, these elites tell us, is to blame for a wide array of ills in American society that threaten democracy: moneyed interests buying elections, rampant corruption, and declining trust in government. The elites are wrong, yet the American public believes them. This book is about why that matters. David Primo and Jeffrey Milyo use original survey data to show that the public is misinformed about money in politics, its support for free speech is often driven by partisan or ideological considerations, and it “sees” corruption in the everyday activities of politicians. Moreover, the public is skeptical that campaign finance reform will fix American democracy, and its support for specific reforms is often driven by misinformation about the role of money in campaigns. Having established what the public thinks about money in politics, Primo and Milyo next use survey data spanning thirty years to show that state-level campaign finance reforms have no meaningful effect on trust and confidence in government, contrary to the claims of reformers but consistent with public skepticism about reform. Given that the US Supreme Court’s justification for upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance laws rests on public attitudes toward government—specifically, limiting “the appearance of corruption”—Primo and Milyo’s results call into question 40 years of campaign finance jurisprudence.