By Maggie Severns
End Citizens United has a message for Democrats seeking a 2018 message: Don’t forget about campaign finance reform. And the progressive PAC is touting polling that shows it could be a big help with independent voters in the midterm elections.
The trove of information collected through polls and focus groups, shared exclusively with POLITICO, makes the case that well-crafted messages on money in politics tie into the so-called “kitchen table” issues, like jobs and health care, that are most critical to the voters who have been slipping out of Democrats’ fold.
Critically, independent voters indicated they care deeply about curbing the influence of special interests, End Citizens United has found. In a new poll of 50 top House battleground districts in early September, for example, independent voters ranked reducing the role of special interests behind only one other issue — national security — in terms of importance. That finding was consistent with other national and state polling End Citizens United conducted in the last year and a half.
“Can we actually win races on this? Obviously, what our polling shows is, yes we can,” End Citizens United President Tiffany Muller said in an interview. “We need to win races by winning independent voters and unaffiliated voters and non-college voters back on our side. And this issue moves them.”
One of the first steps, Muller said, is to jettison jargon and talk about special interests in plain terms. Even for End Citizens United, that means not saying the words “Citizens United.”
“People think Citizens United is an insurance company. That’s what they talk about in focus groups,” Muller said. “They think they’ve seen the TV ads about it.”
Yet Republicans noted that candidates who accept PAC money or even large amounts from out-of-state donors risk looking hypocritical. Talk about curbing money in politics is often an empty promise akin to a student running for class president promising “chocolate milk in the drinking fountain,” said one GOP operative involved in Senate races.
That argument didn’t win 2016 campaigns for Jason Kander in Missouri or Zephyr Teachout, the ethics expert who ran for an open seat in upstate New York last cycle. Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who polled in the district for Teachout’s GOP opponent, John Faso, said that Teachout’s focus on campaign finance reform backfired in an expensive race — which nearly every competitive election is at this point.
“The more she spent, the more jaded voters became with that argument,” McLaughlin said.
“At some point [End Citizens United] may be on the winning side if Democrats happen to have a good year — but it will be decided on other factors, not campaign finance reform,” McLaughlin added.
But anti-special interest campaigning clearly has some cachet. End Citizens United was formed in 2015, shortly before both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran surprisingly successful campaigns in which they railed on special interests. This year, Democrats have painted the Trump administration as corrupt, and campaign strategists including the DCCC have indicated the party plans to place a renewed focus on ethics during the 2018 midterms.
“You’re already seeing incredibly qualified, impressive Democratic candidates across the country running on a bold reform message and running on accountability,” DCCC Press Secretary Tyler Law said.
Muller said End Citizens United has not yet decided which races it will focus on most this cycle, when the group projects it will raise $35 million, but said the potential for Democrats to take back the House is of particular interest. ECU has endorsed 70 candidates so far.
Democratic candidates have often been reluctant to embrace campaign finance reform because it hasn’t been shown to affect people’s votes the way other issues like jobs or national security can. But End Citizens United argues that among certain voters who are disaffected with Washington and the Democratic Party, this conventional wisdom may no longer be true.
End Citizens United has conducted three national polls and a series of state polls, as well as six focus groups in three different cities — Milwaukee, Wis., Billings, Mont. and Las Vegas. Three Democratic firms were hired to conduct the polling and research: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Normington, Petts and Associates, and Anzalone Liszt Grove Research.
In Nevada last cycle, End Citizens United tested reform-minded messages against traditional Democratic messages on issues such as Social Security and Medicare. While the conventional Democratic messages actually made independents and unaffiliated voters slightly less likely to vote for Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in the race, the messages about getting money out of politics increased Cortez-Masto’s margin among independent and unaffiliated voters by 17 and 24 percentage points respectively. Hispanic voters showed a 24-point improvement in Cortez-Masto’s margin after hearing the messages.
“We were stunned by this,” said pollster Al Quinlan, who conducted the Nevada polling. The campaign finance reform issue “didn’t help us a lot with Democrats. But it really had an impact among independents who, in many cases, don’t respond to Democratic messages.”
This year End Citizens United has worked to feel out messages that resonate in two other states in particular, Montana and Wisconsin. There, messages warning of the potential for foreign interests to spend in elections without the public knowing resonated particularly strongly, with persuadable voters ranking a test message on foreign money as more convincing than messages on Social Security and Medicare, as well as college affordability.
Polling shows disaffected voters tend to assume all politicians are corrupt and are mostly looking for a politician who is willing to clean up the system, Muller argued.
“Voters are so disaffected and cynical. They feel like everyone’s talking money,” Muller said. “So they respond to who is going to change the system.”