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Posted 08.31.05

Campaign Finance Laws Do Little to Boost Trust in Government, MU Researcher Finds

COLUMBIA, MO -- The decline of public trust in government in the United States is often linked to the increase in spending for political campaigns. Recent restrictions on campaign contributions and coordination between politicians and advocacy groups that operate outside of actual campaigns have been justified as necessary to improve public perceptions about the functioning of American democracy. However, in the first study of its kind, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that campaign finance reforms bear little relation to citizens' faith in government legitimacy.

Jeffrey Milyo, economics professor at MU's Truman School of Public Affairs, co-authored the study with David Primo, a political science professor at the University of Rochester. They examined the connection between state campaign finance reforms and various measures of trust in government from public opinion survey data over a 50-year period.

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Overall, the contextual effects of state campaign finance laws are minimal, but some patterns do emerge. In general, the earliest reforms to political campaign financing, such as public disclosure of contribution amounts and contributors' names and restrictions on contributions from corporations and unions, appear to have a small positive effect on the public's confidence in government. However, more recent reforms, such as restrictions on contributions from ordinary citizens and public financing, have the opposite effect. Public financing of political campaigns in particular has the most pronounced and consistently negative effect on trust.

"One reason for this relationship may be that corporate or union contributions represent 'interested money,' whereas individual contributions are viewed more benignly," Milyo said. "Hence, when corporate contributions are limited, individuals cheer, but when individual contributions are limited, individuals jeer."

Milyo added that proponents of public financing often over-promise what such reforms can deliver, and that this, together with the fact that "taxpayer financing" of politicians is unpopular, may be the reason such reforms are counter-productive. However, Milyo and Primo caution that these effects in either direction are quite small.

"Given the importance placed on public opinion for the development of campaign finance law, it is remarkable that we have found so little evidence that citizens are influenced very much by the campaign finance laws of their state," Milyo said. "Our results 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."



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