“Independents in particular are the ones who feel the most strongly about this issue,” Greenberg said. “We should emphasize that this is not a partisan issue. This is against Washington and the way politics and money have become intertwined. Democrats are marginally better, but the bigger response here, frankly — particularly with independents — is that neither party has taken the lead on this issue and is seen in the vanguard.”
David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, said being seen as a reform candidate could be a huge asset in 2012.
The poll found that 73 percent of all voters — including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents — believe there should be limits on contributions to political campaigns. That contrasted with just 21 percent of voters who said such limits would violate free-speech rights.
Further, 51 percent of independent voters didn’t identify either party with “cleaning up how we pay for elections,” according to the poll. Democrats had a slight advantage on the issue — 27 percent of independents said the party could better reform the system, compared to 21 percent of independents saying the same for Republicans.
The poll also found that attacking a candidate as having taken a position because of campaign contributions would intensify the attack in voters’ minds.
Pollsters read statements to voters such as saying that a candidate raised taxes on middle-class families. That statement caused voters to have doubts about the candidate, but when it also included the phrase “while receiving millions of dollars in political donations from Big Oil, Wall Street CEOs and lobbyists,” negative reaction spiked another few percentage points.
“We do lots of campaigns and we test lots of attacks, but these are among the strongest that we have tested,” said Greenberg, who was a pollster for former President Clinton. “Money is the traction here that takes it to the next step and gives it power.”
Donnelly said his group would push candidates to adopt a reform message on the campaign trail.
“We want this to be part of their campaign platform and we need to pursue strategies to get more candidates on board with this type of messaging and with this type of platform,” Donnelly said.
The poll surveyed 1,000 likely voters from April 28 to May 1. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
It’s the second poll done on money in politics by the three groups. The first survey, which was released in January, found voters wanted Congress to act on campaign finance reform issues.
Super-PACs, which can receive unlimited contributions from donors, have already had a big role in the Republican presidential primary and are poised to be highly influential in the general election. The groups have sponsored a flood of negative advertising against candidates, which reform organizations blame on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010.
Democrats in the House and the Senate have introduced legislation that would require any group that pays for campaign ads to disclose its top donors to the Federal Election Commission. “Disclose Act 2.0,” named after its predecessor that failed to pass the last Congress, has run into Republican opposition, and doesn’t seem likely to pass this year.
While Congress might not act, Greenberg said money in politics could become a campaign issue. The pollster said he would recommend to candidates that they use the issue against their opponents.
“Whether it becomes an issue is whether candidates choose to make it an issue. It won’t make itself,” Greenberg said. “Campaigns have got to choose their issues. They are going to be focusing on one, two, three issues. This should be one of them, and there’s good evidence that it will be effective.”