April 8, 1997

Poll: Most Doubt Commitment to Overhaul Campaigns


While a significant majority of the American people believe that fundamental changes are needed in the campaign financing system, most doubt that President Clinton and Congress are sincerely committed to changing it, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The President is nevertheless maintaining his strong personal standing with the public, the poll found, despite months of sometimes withering accusations of improper campaign fund-raising tactics.

In contrast, Vice President Al Gore has suffered a sizable loss of favorability as the controversy over campaign finances has grown.

Almost 9 of 10 people surveyed see a need for fundamental changes in fund-raising procedures, or even a total overhaul. But only 3 in 10 believe that the President really wants change, despite his announced commitment to it. The resolve of Congress is subject to even greater doubt, with only 23 percent of the public convinced that the lawmakers, for all their talk, actually want to change the current laws.

While Mr. Clinton's commitment to change is being questioned, his personal standing remains strong as Congress gears up for hearings into his 1996 re-election practices. The telephone poll registered a 56 percent job approval rating for the President, largely because of his handling of the economy. That is only seven points below his personal high, registered by CBS News after his second inauguration.

The campaign financing issue gained momentum after the President's re-election with a steady stream of disclosures about the wide net that had been cast by the Clinton-Gore team to reach affluent donors to the Democratic Party.

Accounts about a chain of high-priced fund-raising events at the White House, and sleep-over privileges in the Lincoln Bedroom for favored guests, stirred Republican accusations that the President had put White House perquisites up "for sale." Controversy only increased with news that the Democratic National Committee had had to return sizable donations because of questions about their true source and that White House invitations had gone to such figures as a foreign arms dealer and a twice-convicted felon later imprisoned for drug smuggling.

Asked about Mr. Clinton's campaign fund-raising practices, 44 percent of respondents said he had done nothing wrong, while 20 percent judged his activities unethical and 12 percent illegal. Despite his general approval rating, two of five Americans said they thought the President had made or changed policy decisions as a direct result of money he raised from major donors.

The public's general suspicion about politicians' dependence on donors was underlined when 75 percent of those polled estimated that "many public officials" generally made or changed policy positions as a result of political donations. Still, 78 percent were opposed to strict public financing of campaigns as a cure, saying it would cost taxpayers too much.

In contrast to the President's job performance rating, Vice President Gore's favorability rating fell to 25 percent, a drop of 24 points in the last three months. (A majority of Americans withheld an overall opinion, as is typically the case with Vice Presidents.) Mr. Gore has come under special scrutiny for soliciting donations in telephone calls from the White House and at a gathering of Buddhist temple-goers. He has been faulted, in turn, by political observers for seeming less skilled than Mr. Clinton in defending ambitious Clinton-Gore fund-raising techniques.

In many ways, the poll suggested that the public's views on campaign finance were still taking shape. The full details of what occurred during the Presidential campaign have yet to be laid before the public in the hearings scheduled by Congress this spring and summer. Moreover, because the public has rarely been surveyed in depth on campaign finance, any shift in its views is difficult to measure.

And, for all the heat that the issue is generating in Washington, the public is far from rating campaign law overhaul a compelling priority in comparison with crime, schools and the economy. In fact, only 2 respondents, of the 1,347 polled, cited campaign fund-raising when asked to name the nation's most important problem.

"What they do in Washington really doesn't affect me," said Frank Zupancic, a 47-year-old auto mechanic from East Lake, Ohio. "I have to go to work every day, and all they want to do is get deeper in my pocket."

Further, only 12 percent of respondents said they had been following news of the issue "very closely," and 43 percent complained that the news media had been spending too much time on it.

Whatever public reaction may develop from the Congressional hearings, the poll, conducted last Wednesday through Saturday, shows that Americans already sense that there is a clear advantage enjoyed by incumbents under the current system. Three of five estimated that political challengers faced a more difficult time than incumbents under the big-dollar financing pressures of modern campaigning.

Some jaded comments were offered by respondents in elaborating on their replies to the poll, which had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. "Too many politicians are getting rich," said Nade Wiese, a 60-year-old electrician from Steamboat Springs, Colo. "They don't want to change things because there is too much money they can put in their pockets."

As a "top priority" solution, the public favors effective campaign disclosure (54 percent) more strongly than limiting either campaign spending (23 percent) or special-interest contributions (28 percent). On specific proposals for changing the system, more than three of five favor significant free television time for Presidential candidates, while 70 percent favor cutting, to $1,000 from $5,000, the maximum that a political action committee can spend on a single candidate.

"The special-interest groups spend millions to get their point across, and people like me aren't heard at all," said Pam Elliott, a 42-year-old woman on disability in Dyersburg, Tenn. "Money talks."

A 57 percent majority endorsed a need for Congressional hearings, with Americans especially troubled by the possibility that foreign governments might have tried to buy influence through campaign contributions. The foreign threat, already a priority in the Congressional investigations, was rated most troubling by 45 percent of respondents, larger than those who cited special-interest donors (25 percent) and wealthy individuals (21 percent).

"I don't feel it's so important where the money comes from as long as it's within the United States," said Gene Fultz, 66, a retired computer analyst in Norfolk, Va. "The money from outside the country is another issue. That kind of influence is questionable."

At the same time, the public clearly does not want the Republican-controlled Congress to restrict its focus solely to the Democratic campaign. Almost 9 of 10 people said the hearings should investigate the fund-raising activities of both parties.

Republican Congressional leaders contend that the Clinton re-election drive, with its zealous emphasis on a boost of "soft money" donations to the Democratic Party, committed most of the campaign abuses last year. In the early months of the scandal search, the Democratic National Committee has already returned or promised to return more than $3 million in questionable donations.

The Times/CBS News Poll, however, found that 77 percent of the public rated the Clinton campaign's financing tactics to be common to both political parties.

For all the doubts about the resolve of both parties to change the system, only 8 percent of the public thinks the current laws work well and need only minor changes. Virtually all the rest endorse fundamental change (50 percent) or complete overhaul (39 percent).

"It would settle things down if Congress did something about it," said Harris Spear, a 75-year-old retired personnel manager in Eugene, Ore. "They could get back to work and do what they're supposed to be doing."

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