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National Survey: Super PACs, Corruption, and Democracy

Americans’ attitudes about the influence of Super PAC spending on government and the implications for our democracy.

April 24, 2012

Amer­ic­ans’ Atti­tudes about the Influ­ence of Super PAC Spend­ing on Govern­ment and the Implic­a­tions for our Demo­cracy

Down­load the Summary [pdf]

Down­load the Appendix [pdf]


A recent national survey conduc­ted on behalf of the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law demon­strates that the spend­ing of Super PACs in this year’s elec­tion cycle has given rise to a large, bipar­tisan consensus that such outsized spend­ing is danger­ous for our demo­cracy. Histor­ical polling has repeatedly shown that Amer­ic­ans believe elec­ted offi­cials favor the interests of large contrib­ut­ors to their own campaign war-chests.  This new poll reveals for the first time that Amer­ic­ans have similar fears of elec­ted offi­cials favor­ing big donors to nomin­ally inde­pend­ent Super PACs — and also that many are less likely to vote because of Super PAC spend­ing.  

From April 12–15, 2012, the inde­pend­ent Opin­ion Research Corpor­a­tion conduc­ted a national tele­phone survey of 1,015 adults living in the contin­ental United States.[1]  A summary of responses to each polling ques­tion is provided below. A detailed Appendix, includ­ing the poll’s script, meth­od­o­logy, and responses broken down by demo­graph­ics, is avail­able on the Bren­nan Center’s website at http://www.bren­nan­cen­

The poll reveals that nearly 70 percent of Amer­ic­ans believe Super PAC spend­ing will lead to corrup­tion and that three in four Amer­ic­ans believe limit­ing how much corpor­a­tions, unions, and indi­vidu­als can donate to Super PACs would curb corrup­tion.  Of those who expressed an opin­ion, more than 80 percent believe that, compared with past elec­tions, the money being spent by polit­ical groups this year is more likely to lead to corrup­tion.  And, most alarm­ingly, the poll revealed that concerns about the influ­ence Super PACs have over elec­ted offi­cials under­mine Amer­ic­ans’ faith in demo­cracy:  one in four respond­ents — and even larger numbers of low-income people, African Amer­ic­ans, and Lati­nos — repor­ted that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more sway than aver­age Amer­ic­ans.

Super PAC Spend­ing Has Produced Wide­spread Percep­tions of Corrup­tion

By signi­fic­ant margins, Amer­ic­ans believe new rules that allow indi­vidu­als, corpor­a­tions, and unions to donate unlim­ited amounts to Super PACs will lead to corrup­tion.  These beliefs are held equally by both Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

  • 69% of respond­ents agreed that “new rules that let corpor­a­tions, unions and people give unlim­ited money to Super PACs will lead to corrup­tion.” Only 15% disagreed.[2]  Notably, 74% of Repub­lic­ans and 73% of Demo­crats agreed with this state­ment.[3]    
  • 73% of respond­ents agreed that “there would be less corrup­tion if there were limits on how much could be given to Super PACs.” Only 14% disagreed.  Here, 75% of Repub­lic­ans and 78% of Demo­crats agreed. 
  • Only about 1 in 5 Amer­ic­ans agree that aver­age voters have the same access to candid­ates (and influ­ence on candid­ates) as big donors to Super PACs.  Two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans disagree.

Of Those Express­ing an Opin­ion, More than Four in Five Believe Spend­ing in This Elec­tion Cycle Is More Likely to Lead to Corrup­tion

  • Half of respond­ents — and 85% of those express­ing an opin­ion — agreed that spend­ing in this elec­tion is more likely to lead to corrup­tion than in previ­ous elec­tions. Only 9% of respond­ents thought that, compared to previ­ous elec­tions, it was less likely that the money spent by polit­ical groups in this elec­tion will lead to corrup­tion.  Repub­lic­ans (51%) and Demo­crats (54%) both agreed that spend­ing in this elec­tion is more likely to lead to corrup­tion.

Broad Bipar­tisan Major­it­ies Believe Elec­ted Offi­cials Favor the Interests of Super PAC Donors over the Public Interest

Large major­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans believe that members of Congress will favor the interests of those who donate to Super PACs over those who do not — and that Super PAC donors can pres­sure elec­ted offi­cials to alter their votes.

  • More than two-thirds of all respond­ents (68%) — includ­ing 71% of Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans — agreed that a company that spent $100,000 to help elect a member of Congress could success­fully pres­sure him or her to change a vote on proposed legis­la­tion.  Only one in five respond­ents disagreed.
  • More than three-quar­ters of all respond­ents — 77% — agreed that members of Congress are more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest.  Similar numbers of Repub­lic­ans (81%) and Demo­crats (79%) agreed.  Only 10% disagreed. 

The Percep­tion that Super PACs Have Excess­ive Influ­ence over Govern­ment Threatens Grave Consequences for Parti­cip­at­ory Demo­cracy

An alarm­ing number of Amer­ic­ans report that their concerns about the influ­ence of donors to outside polit­ical groups make them less likely to engage in demo­cracy.  Communit­ies of color, those with lower incomes, and indi­vidu­als with less formal educa­tion are more likely to disen­gage due to concerns about how much influ­ence is wiel­ded by Super PAC donors.

  • Two in three Amer­ic­ans — 65% — say that they trust govern­ment less because big donors to Super PACs have more influ­ence than regu­lar voters.  Repub­lic­ans (67%) and Demo­crats (69%) uniformly agree.
  • One in four Amer­ic­ans — 26% — say that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influ­ence over elec­ted offi­cials than aver­age Amer­ic­ans.
    • Less wealthy and less educated Amer­ic­ans were signi­fic­antly more likely to say they would be less likely to vote because of Super PAC influ­ence:  34% of respond­ents with no more than a high school educa­tion, and 34% of those in house­holds with an annual income less than $35,000, said they would be less likely to vote.[4]
    • A higher number of African-Amer­ican and Hispanic voters also stated that the dispro­por­tion­ate influ­ence of Super PAC donors will discour­age them from voting:  29% of African Amer­ic­ans and 34% of Hispan­ics said they were less likely to vote because of Super PAC influ­ence.[5]
    • 41% of respond­ents – includ­ing  49% of those who have no more than a high school educa­tion and 48% of those with house­hold incomes under $35,000 – believe  that their votes don’t matter very much because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influ­ence.[6]

[1] The survey included 764 land­line inter­views and 251 cell phone inter­views, and was weighted to account for geographic, demo­graphic, and socioeco­nomic under­rep­res­ent­a­tion.

[2] Unless other­wise indic­ated, the margin of error for repor­ted survey results is ±3.1%.

[3] The margin of error for all repor­ted results for Repub­lic­ans is ±4.9%, and the margin of error for all repor­ted results for Demo­crats is ±4.6%. Smal­ler numbers of inde­pend­ent voters agreed with the state­ments in the survey; this was largely because inde­pend­ent voters were more likely to report having no feel­ing about whether they agreed or disagreed.

[4] The margin of error for all repor­ted results for those with a high school educa­tion or less is ±5.1%, and the margin of error for all repor­ted results for those with house­hold incomes less than $35,000 is ±5.3%.

[5] The margins of error for this partic­u­lar result for African-Amer­ic­ans and Hispan­ics are ±9.6% and ±13.0%, respect­ively. Because of low sample sizes, we were not able to conclude that these results were stat­ist­ic­ally signi­fic­ant.

[6] Respond­ents with a high school educa­tion or less, and respond­ents with house­hold incomes under $35,000, were signi­fic­antly more likely to believe that their votes don’t matter very much because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influ­ence.