University of Rochester

Voters' Trust Not Tied to Campaign Finance Laws, Researchers Say

September 25, 2003

Even in political races close to home, U.S. voters don't link campaign finance reform to their own sense of trust in government. David Primo of the University of Rochester and Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Chicago found that people's attitudes toward government do not depend on campaign finance laws in their home states.

Political scientists Primo and Milyo used statistical data from the National Election Studies covering 1952-2000 and state-level figures to examine the relationship between campaign finance laws and a concept related to trust, "political efficacy." "We find limited support for the claim that restrictions on contributions improve political efficacy," the researchers say in their study. Political efficacy refers to the belief that a person can have an influence on the political process.

"The effect of campaign finance laws is often perverse, rarely positive, and in all cases modest," the authors write. They suggest that "justifications for reform ought to be with respect to other features of the political process, such as competitiveness and turnout, and not with respect to making citizens feel better about their government."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed in 2002, which bans "soft money" contributions by groups and allows increases in donations from individuals. Defenders of the law say that large donations by special interests corrupt the political system and alienate voters; others want to overturn it because they believe it is unconstitutional and brings excessive federal intrusion into state and local political parties.

The authors say their research is the first systematic test of the link between campaign finance laws and citizen perception of government. Primo is assistant professor of political science at Rochester and Milyo is assistant professor at the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at Chicago. They presented their findings at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association last month.

At present, the United States is in an era of "mature" campaign finance regulation, Primo and Milyo say, since all states have disclosure laws on the books, and most states have some restrictions on contributions.