Poll: Public looks down on lobbyists, but OK with firms using them

People in the United States are skeptical of businesses that use lobbyists, a new poll has found, but generally say it is acceptable for companies to look for advantages in Washington.

Just one in 10 respondents in the Public Affairs Pulse survey said they would think more positively of a corporation that employed lobbyists.

But at the same time, strong majorities also said it was fine for companies to lobby to break into new markets or reduce costs, and a slim majority even supported the use of lobbying to lock up government funding.

Doug Pinkham, the president of the Public Affairs Council, which commissioned the survey, chalked that paradox up to respondents having more positive views about corporate America than about Washington lobbyists and the federal government.

“When you associate business behavior — when you associate anything — with Washington or politics, it smells bad,” Pinkham told The Hill. “Lobbying and lobbyist have become such pejorative terms.”

Two out of three respondents in the poll had favorable views of big companies, a slight uptick from the council’s 2011 poll. But at the same time, roughly 6 in 10 don’t believe the government can handle the major issues it currently faces.

The poll also found that people in the United States don’t like for companies to jump into politics.

In all, just 8 percent of respondents had a more favorable opinion of companies that explicitly backed a specific candidate, and 13 percent thought more highly of companies that supported a particular issue or policy.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other recent court rulings have freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns. That has given rise to super-PACs and nonprofit groups that receive anonymous funding.

Pinkham said the lesson for companies, given the poll numbers and the political landscape, is to be upfront about their political activities, rather than staying out of politics altogether.

“Smart companies know that politics is controversial, and that their employees likely reflect a cross section of American opinion,” Pinkham said. “If they are involved politically, there is more and more a need to talk about this to the world, to be transparent about it.”

The poll comes after a slew of other surveys have found the public deeply disappointed in what it sees as government gridlock, and in the midst of a negative campaign between President Obama and the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

The Public Affairs Council is a nonpartisan group that seeks to advise its membership — which includes Fortune 500 companies and advocates like the AARP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — on public-affairs issues.

Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted the group’s poll, which surveyed 1,750 adults around the country and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

The poll also found that, while respondents might have a generally positive view of major companies, there is also stiff opposition to certain practices like outsourcing and hefty executive bonuses. Obama has slammed Romney for outsourcing, as part of a broader critique of the GOP candidate’s career in private equity.

According to the poll, the public would like to see the private sector take more of a financial stake in areas that have historically been the government’s responsibility, with at least six in 10 saying business should help out in areas like healthcare, education and disaster relief.

Respondents were split down the middle on whether private companies should take more of the responsibility for infrastructure like mass transit and roads.

People in the United States, the poll found, are also divided into roughly equal thirds on the question of whether there is too much regulation, too little or around the right amount. Congressional Republicans have made regulations a major target in recent months, with the House passing another bill on the issue last week.

But in drilling down deeper, the poll reported that roughly two in 10 respondents thought there was too much regulation in specific areas like the environment, banks and workplace safety.

That range of findings, Pinkham said, could serve as a cautionary tale for Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail this year.

“For the president and Democrats, I think the data showed that people don’t dislike big companies as much as they think they do,” Pinkham said. “But I also don’t think people hate regulations as much as Republicans think they do.”