Democracy reform is becoming the defining issue of the 2016 race

Written by Jay Riestenberg on February 10, 2016


With the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wins in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, not much was settled about the state of the presidential race for the Republicans or the Democrats. But it’s clear there is a theme emerging on both sides: the candidates who take on the issue of money in politics attract strong voter support.

Campaign finance reform and our rigged democracy and economy have been central themes in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. A recent poll of Iowa caucus goers by the money in politics reform organization Every Voice found 84% of Sanders’ supporters listed his position on money in politics as one of the top three reasons for voting for him. While Sanders needs to talk more about how he would fix the current system, there is no doubt that his stinging critique has broken through with voters and is one of the main reasons he has been successful in the race so far.

Hillary Clinton also has picked up on the voters’ concerns about big money. In her New Hampshire concession speech, one of the first things Clinton discussed is secret money in elections and the need to overturn Citizens United. “No one is more committed to campaign finance reform than me,” she said. While voters will ultimately decide which candidate can best take on campaign finance reform, Clinton’s speech seemed a clear sign that she is ready to stump on her commitment to repair our democracy.

Both Clinton and Sanders have published campaign finance reform plans that mirror the Fighting Big Money, Empowering People agenda, a list of proposed money in politics policy solutions released by 13 leading campaign finance advocacy organizations. The last Democratic debate included a heated exchange about the role of money in politics, reflecting the candidates’ understanding that voters want to hear more from them on the subject as the campaign continues.

Across the aisle, Republican voters are just as frustrated as Democrats with the role of money in politics. A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed 81% of Republicans want fundamental changes or to completely rebuild our system for funding campaigns. Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump – winners of the first two contests – regularly attack the influence of special interests and big money.

Sadly however, neither Trump, Cruz, nor any other Republican presidential candidate has released a detailed plan for comprehensive campaign finance reform. Trump’s argument that by self-funding his campaign he has freed himself from the influence of big money is clearly popular with his supporters but it should not be taken as a statement endorsing reform.

Even though no GOP candidate has released a comprehensive plan, more of the candidates are talking about “taking on special interests.” A few have actually endorsed needed reforms; for example, John Kasich argues that we need to end gerrymandering so that voters can pick their representatives and not the other way around.

As the Republican primaries continue and GOP voters search for their nominee, the GOP candidates would be smart to start endorsing meaningful money in politics reform.

The public’s anger and frustration with government also is getting more attention these days from the sitting President. President Obama dwelled during his State of the Union speech last month on the need for a “better politics” during his final year in office and is expected to endorse a package of democracy reforms in a speech today in Springfield, IL.

The 2016 candidates may continue to debate the role of money in politics, but for voters, the debate is over. Poll after poll shows voters are ready for bold action to ensure that government is really of, by, and for the people, that everyone has an equal voice, and that our elected officials are beholden to everyone, not just big money special interests. It’s up to the candidates to hear the voters’ message and act.

 

Office: Common Cause National

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