ABC News and the Washington Post today released polling results on the public response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.The results, at first glance, don’t show much sympathy and understanding among the general public for the First Amendment and unfettered political speech, but a closer look reveals that the two questions asked perhaps weren’t worded optimally.
The first question is somewhat leading and lacking context:
…do you support or oppose the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that says corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections?
80 percent of those polled said they opposed the ruling.
On its face, not the worst way to ask to the question. But specifying “corporations and unions” as being able to “spend as much money as they want to help political candidates win elections” seems designed to conjure images of powerful interests pouring nearly-infinite amounts of money into campaigns to elect politicians who will bend to their will.
The question also lacks context—the fact that organized interest groups are now free to run ads and spend money to support or oppose political candidates appears nowhere in the question. Given the large number of Americans who are members of or at least identify with groups like the Sierra Club, National Right to Life, National Rifle Association, Human Rights Campaign, and countless thousands of other organizations, it would seem important to know that these groups are also freed up by the Citizens United ruling, not just unions and corporations of which most Americans are not members, employees or shareholders.
Also, corporations and unions can only spend as much money as they reasonably have available, not “as much money as they want.”
Finally, given the anti-incumbent and anti-politician mood in this country at the moment, “help political candidates win election” may not be the most neutral phrasing available.
But it’s the second question in the poll that really misleads and fails to provide the necessary context:
Would you support or oppose an effort by Congress to reinstate limits on corporate and union spending on election campaigns?
On this question, 72 percent said they supported having Congress reinstate the limits.
But it isn’t a “limit” that the Supreme Court lifted, it was an absolute ban on corporate and union expenditures. Furthermore, the question doesn’t bother to mention that Congress’ only route to “reinstate limits” on corporations and unions would be a Constitutional amendment that would roll back the First Amendment. I wonder how many Americans would have said they support efforts by Congress to “repeal part of the First Amendment in order to limit or ban corporations and unions from spending on election campaigns?”
I somehow suspect that support for overriding the Citizens United would crash once Americans were told that Congress needed to alter the First Amendment in order to “reinstate limits.”
While the results of this poll aren’t really a good gauge of public opinion because of these severe shortcomings, there is little doubt that the broad majority of Americans don’t understand campaign finance regulations and the Citizens United decision very well. To cite just one point of confusion, the so-called campaign finance “reform” community has invested a great deal of effort into confusing the issue by blurring the distinction between independent expenditures by corporations and unions (permitted by Citizens United) and direct contributions to candidates by corporations and unions (still banned).
Polls that ask a few overly-simplistic questions that lack any real-world context don’t provide much useful information. Hopefully better polls than this one that explore how Americans feel about the First Amendment and limits on citizen speech will be forthcoming.