In N.H., 2016 Candidates Face Voters Long Frustrated With Money in Politics

Jul 16, 2015

As they make their way around the Granite State, the presidential contenders being met by potential voters frustrated with the political influence of wealthy donors.

NHPR’s digital reporter Brian Wallstin has been reporting on the issue of money in politics and where the candidates stand, and he’s here to talk about what he’s learned.

People have been talking for years about the need to change how political campaigns are paid for. But, as you write, advocates for reform seem more energized this year. Why is that?

A big reason is that ordinary voters on both sides of the political divide are fed up with the barrage of spending that accompanies every election.

A recent poll in the New York Times found that two-thirds of Americans say the wealthy have too much influence over the political process, and an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – believe the current campaign-finance system needs an overhaul. So advocates for reform now believe they have a majority of the public on their side.

You found that New Hampshire occupies an interesting place in the money-in-politics debate.

Right. In 1995, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich met in Claremont and shook hands on a promise to address campaign finance and lobbying reform.

John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley met at the same location during the 2000 primary and pledged to tackle the issue if they became their parties’ nominees. And, of course, there is Granny D – Doris Haddock – who walked across the country to protest political corruption in 1999 and 2000

She’s the inspiration behind the reform group, New Hampshire Rebellion, which has deployed hundreds of volunteers to question the 2016 candidates at town hall meetings and campaign events.

So what are the candidates saying? Let’s start with the Democrats.

Democrats want to reduce the influence of mega-wealthy donors by restricting how much they can contribute. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all say they would find a way – through a constitutional amendment or by nominating like-minded Supreme Court justices – to overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that ushered in the Super PAC era.

Sanders and O’Malley also support publicly financed campaigns that would encourage candidates to accept more contributions from small donors.

Here’s O’Malley during a visit to Manchester in June, expressing his support for legislation that would provide a 6-1 match of public funds:

“… it’s not only about getting money out of politics, it’s about getting people back into taking ownership of their own politics and their own government because the big money has the effect of making everybody want to stay home.”

How are Republicans talking about this issue?

Republicans tend to agree that limiting campaign contributions violates their right to free speech under the First Amendment. But several candidates – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - all say they’d get rid of so-called dark money – unreported donations - and make candidates report every dollar they receive.

Here’s Ted Cruz at a campaign stop in Barrington back in April talking about an amendment he proposed, the Super PAC Elimination Act of 2014 

“What it did was very simple. It eliminated contribution limits from individuals to any candidate. And then it required immediate disclosure within 24 hours. As a practical matter, if we did that, Super PACs would go away.”

What are the chances that this issue will continue to resonate with primary voters and perhaps make a difference in the outcome for either party?

I think even the strongest advocate for reform would admit campaign finance isn’t going to be the top issue for most voters on Election Day. That’ll be especially true on the Republican side.

As for the Democrats, Sanders seems to be making it a major pillar of his campaign, and his support for public financing of elections separates him from the presumptive front-runner Hillary Clinton – but it’s too early to predict whether that will give him much traction. But let’s remember – there’s no doubt this will be the most presidential campaign ever. Jeb Bush’s Super PAC, Right to Rise, has already raised more than $100 million, while Clinton’s campaign raised more than $45 million.

All that being said, reformers hope – if not this election, maybe the next – that candidates will start connecting the dots between all this money and government policy. If that happens, they think changing how elections are paid for might become more important to voters.