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Money Talks | The Nation

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Money Talks

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In this gilded-age election, big money is speaking louder than ever. And voters and large contributors to both parties agree that when money talks, politicians listen. About three-fourths of all voters and major donors believe that half the time or more, members of Congress decide what to do based on what their contributors want rather than what they really believe, according to a survey conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates for the Nation Institute and the Institute for Americaπs Future.

About the Author

Celinda Lake
Celinda Lake, founder of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, is a leading opinion researcher.
Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America's Future.

Also by the Author

The irony of American politics is that the right is far weaker than it appears and the left far stronger than it asserts.

Liberals are pushing a range of measures that challenge Obama administration policy.

The survey, conducted in June, interviewed 1,000 voters and 200 major political contributors who had contributed $5,000 or more to national candidates since 1997 (100 donors to Democratic candidates and 100 to Republican candidates). The Center for Responsive Politics reports that about 235,000 people contributed $1,000 or more to any federal election candidate in the 1996 election cycle, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the population. Those who did were more white, more male, older and, no surprise, wealthier than Americans as a whole. Their agreements and disagreements with most voters describe much of what is wrong with Americaπs money-drenched politics.

Both donors and voters are cynical about our political system. More than half of all voters say "special interests and lobbyists" have the "most control over what goes on in Washington, DC," as opposed to the President (12 percent), the parties in Congress (19 percent combined) or citizens and voters (5 percent). Similarly, 41 percent of donors agree that special interests and lobbyists have the most control, with the President coming in second at 16 percent. Three-fourths of voters and a majority of large donors agree that "large businesses and corporations" have too much influence on the federal government. (Only Republicans split, with a majority of Republican fat cats--53 percent--saying that businesses have the right amount or too little influence, while 68 percent of Republican voters think they have too much.) And not surprisingly, both donors and voters have grown markedly more cynical in the four years since we last posed a similar question.

Large majorities of voters and almost half of all donors are appalled by what Washington would consider business as usual--for example, the fact that Lockheed Martin, the military contractor, received more than $12.7 billion in prime contracts last year after spending $8.2 million on lobbying and political contributions. We asked whether an American company spending money to advocate its own interests in Washington was engaging in "a normal and ethical way to do business" or a form of "legalized bribery." Inside the Beltway, of course, lobbying is a desirable and lucrative profession that more and more legislators pursue upon leaving Congress. But 71 percent of voters consider it legalized bribery, and only 19 percent a normal part of doing business. Even large donors split, with 43 percent considering it legalized bribery and 44 percent saying itπs a normal way of doing business.

What do big contributors get for their money? They get access. Perhaps the most striking finding of the poll was that while 54 percent of large donors had personally spoken to a federal elected official in the past year, only 9 percent of voters had. When politicians go back home every weekend, they may talk at their voters via radio or TV shows, but they talk with their contributors.

What does money say when it speaks? Donors and voters have roughly similar views on the economy, although voters are notably more skeptical about who benefits. Divisions on whether weπre on the right or the wrong track are more partisan than class based, with Democrats more positive and Republicans more critical. Almost two-thirds of voters and 42 percent of large contributors say the economic upturn has benefited the wealthy and big corporations most, as opposed to the poor or the middle class. (Forty percent of large contributors say all equally, while only 16 percent of voters do.) Seventy-two percent of voters but only 56 percent of large donors agree that despite the current wave of prosperity, most Americans "are just holding their own," as opposed to "prosperity has been good for almost everyone." And remarkably, both citizens and fat cats agree on the level of income a family of four needs "to make ends meet"--with more than three-fourths saying more than $35,000 a year, more than twice the poverty level.

Yet voters and donors live in different worlds. Only 42 percent of voters say the current economic boom has "reached people like me" (54 percent say it has not), while 80 percent of donors say that they have benefited. This reality leads to starkly contrasting views on basic economic choices facing the country. Not surprisingly, the differences are largest where donors have a direct financial stake. For example, on the question of what should be done to insure the financial health of Social Security, 63 percent of voters favor lifting the salary cap on Social Security taxes, so everyone pays the same percentage in payroll taxes (44 percent strongly), including solid majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans. Only 24 percent oppose this reform. But 48 percent of large donors oppose lifting the cap (38 percent strongly), while 42 percent favor it (Democratic donors are less negative than Republicans are).

On the other hand, more than half of all voters oppose partial privatization of Social Security (37 percent strongly), while 41 percent favor it. But 54 percent of large donors favor privatization (38 percent strongly) while only 38 percent oppose it. Here partisan differences are significant, with Democratic donors lining up with Democratic and Independent voters in opposition to Republican donors and voters, although even among Republican voters only a bare majority (52 percent) favor privatization.

What should be done with the projected budget surpluses? Given the choice of an across-the-board tax cut (the Bush emphasis), paying down the national debt (the Gore emphasis), investment in education or expanding health coverage to uninsured children and families, the differences between voters and donors are stark. Sixty-one percent of voters chose investing in healthcare and education, and only one-third chose either a tax cut or paying down the debt. Fifty-two percent of donors chose either a tax cut or paying down the debt, while only 40 percent chose investing in health and education. Here again, the partisan differences are significant, with Republican donors the most invested in a tax cut, helping to explain why Bush made it the centerpiece of his platform.

The class differences are also stark in the historic debate over globalization and trade. Fifty-three percent of voters think free-trade agreements cost more jobs than they create, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Barely one-fourth of voters think free trade creates more jobs than it costs, but 55 percent of large donors believe that, including the majority of both Democratic and Republican donors. (The contrast is greatest among Democrats; such voters are more likely to be suspicious of trade and donors more likely to be supportive.)

Donors and voters also hold divergent views on giving China "permanent normal trade relations." Voters oppose it 53 percent to 31 percent, while donors favor it 56 percent to 31 percent. So when President Clinton joined with Republican Congressional leaders to drive the China trade deal through the House, members had to choose between their donors and their voters. In an election year, with fundraising at fever pitch, itπs not surprising that money won.

Voters and donors also divide on regulating corporations. Voters think regulations need to be tougher, by 52 percent to 34 percent, while donors think they "go too far now" by 45 to 39. Here again, there is a notable partisan divide, with Democratic donors more likely than Republicans to favor tougher regulations.

One striking result from the poll is that gender matters: Female donors are far closer to voters in their attitudes on economic issues than are male donors. They are far more likely to favor investment in education and healthcare over a tax cut or debt elimination, far more dubious about privatizing Social Security and the benefits of free trade. One reason may be that women donors are much more in touch with peopleπs lives. Seventy-two percent of voters and 68 percent of female donors think that most Americans are "just holding their own" in the new prosperity, while only 50 percent of male donors agree. Strikingly, 71 percent of female donors and 76 percent of voters believe that it is unfair to pay temporary workers less than regular employees for the same work, while only 50 percent of male donors think it unfair, and 42 percent think it is fair.

If women funded politics, the divide between large donors and voters would be far less stark. But there are far fewer female donors than male ones. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, women make about one-fourth of the "hard money" donations of $200 or more to federal candidates, but only about one-eighth of the unlimited soft-money contributions. This suggests that many of the hard-money contributions are "proxies," directed by husbands seeking to avoid the contribution limits.

Like women, smaller donors are not as divorced from voters as is big money. A separate survey of moderate donors ($200 to $1,000) shows that they stand almost equidistant between voters and fat cats in both average income and views. They are more conservative on economic issues than voters are, but less than the big money. And they are better off than voters are, but not as wealthy as the big money.

The conventions of both parties are testaments to the power of money. Upstairs, in the skyboxes and the back rooms, on yachts and in mansions, large contributors are courted privately by politicians. Downstairs, the delegates are herded together to provide a backdrop for the cameras. But the large donors who pay for Americaπs politics donπt look, live or think like America. In fact, there is only one public institution that is similar in composition to the circle of political fat cats--the US Senate. Like their donors, the Senate is disproportionately white, male, aging and rich. No wonder big money has such inordinate influence. When they talk to their senators, donors are often talking to people just like themselves.

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