Character and Campaign Finance

For years, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has steeled the spines of his fellow opponents of campaign finance reform by telling them, don't worry, no one has ever won or lost an election because of his or her position on the issue. Well, McConnell's maxim is losing its power. Senator John McCain's stunning victories over Texas Governor George W. Bush in New Hampshire and Michigan show that campaign finance reform does matter to voters, especially as an issue that defines a candidate's character.

Signs of the issue's importance to New Hampshire voters, including those voters who gave McCain his victory, can be traced back to an August 1998 poll conducted by the Mellman Group. In that survey, 79 percent of New Hampshire voters overall said they wanted changes made in the federal campaign finance system. Even more interesting, a whopping 84 percent of self-identified "conservative Republicans" supported that proposition. When asked about specific proposals like a ban on soft money and the "clean money" approach of providing public financing to candidates, Republican support trailed only a few points behind that of independents and Democrats--with all groups backing these measures by around a two-to-one margin. Those of us who have toiled in the fields of reform have known for a long time that Republican leaders were out of touch with their own base on this; it's a pleasure to watch them sweat now.

Of course, the grand poobahs of the Republican establishment should have realized that their antireform message could backfire in the face of their chosen candidate when an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken last July reported that, by a margin of 56-29, voters thought that the $37 million that George W. Bush had then raised was "excessive and a sign of what's wrong with politics today," as opposed to "impressive and a sign of broad-based support."

Instead, a gaggle of leading Republican lobbyists flew up to New Hampshire last September to denounce McCain and his quest for campaign finance reform. At the time, McCain was in the single digits in the polls and, as The Boston Globe reported, "hungry for public notice [and] delighted to be [the lobbyists'] target." These political geniuses, led by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and joined by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, and Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Committee, were met by local protesters mobilized by the New Hampshire Citizens Alliance, who wore buttons reading "79%"--a reference to the Mellman poll data--and held signs reading "New Hampshire voters won't be silenced by big money."

Needless to say, Norquist's foray fell flat in the Granite State. Indeed, by the date of the first Republican candidates' debate in New Hampshire, McCain's bold attacks on Washington's mercenary culture were striking a responsive chord. Dozens of youthful McCain supporters stood outside the debate hall chanting, "You can't buy New Hampshire."

All this is not to argue that voters are suddenly paying close attention to the details of campaign reform. They're not. Unlike health care, education, or taxes, campaign finance reform is an abstract issue that is not as likely to generate an emotional or self-interested response in polling on voters' top concerns. But it has become a prism through which voters judge a candidate's character and moral fiber. Commenting on the crowds McCain has been drawing, conservative pundit Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Does anyone imagine that it is his advocacy of campaignfinance reform that inspires people to feel this way?" Well, can anyone imagine this kind of a populist response to a candidate not running as an opponent of moneyed interests? Even though McCain's image is much better than his own record of doing favors for special-interest contributors, what's important is that voters have gravitated toward the candidate with the strongest message about change.

No doubt there are other aspects to McCain's maverick takeoff: his prisoner-of-war years, his no-holds-barred relationship with the media, and the fact that he has no connection to the party in the White House. By the time you read this, his bus may have run out of gas in California or New York. But for the moment, the success of his candidacy is heartening. It offers clear proof that the years campaign finance reformers have put into educating the public about the problem of money in politics are starting to pay off.