Older Americans frown on the influence of big money on the presidential campaign. By overwhelming majorities, they think limiting the amount of money campaigns can spend would improve the political process. They say those who pay for attack ads should be publicly disclosed, as should outside groups that spend money on campaigns.
They are an idealistic lot. In reality, millions of dollars are flooding into primary states to buy negative TV ads, finance suspicious robo-calls and pay for misleading mail flyers.
In South Carolina, the campaigns of the presidential candidates have been outspent 2-to-1 by so-called Super PACs, political action committees that can accept unlimited contributions and spend the money as they see fit, often to trash candidates. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 opened the door to corporations, nonprofits, unions and wealthy individuals to spend as much money as they wish on politics, undermining years of post-Watergate reforms. The Super PACs were born of that ruling.
Thus, a Las Vegas casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson, can pour $5 million into a Super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich, although Adelson would be restricted to a fraction of that, $5,000, if he gave directly to Gingrich's campaign. On the Democratic side, Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg gave $2 million to a pro-Obama Super PAC. These are just two examples.
These mega contributions come at a price.
"There are deep pockets on both sides of the aisle," says Ed Bender, who runs the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics. "Wealthy interests come in and, because they can, write the big checks" that influence who is elected.
Voters should seek out unbiased information, Bender says. Check out his followthemoney.org website to find how political contributions play at the state level, and use the Center for Responsive Politics' opensecrets.org for federal politics. An informed voter is a smart voter.