In December 1999, six weeks before the 2000 New Hampshire primary, John Rauh watched as Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley met in Claremont to denounce the role of money in politics.
At the time, Rauh was on the board of Common Cause, the liberal advocacy group working to establish a system to publicly finance presidential elections. He recalls that while McCain and Bradley shared a passion for reform, campaign finance did not resonate as a key concern among voters.
“There was strong interest among reform organizations,” says Rauh, who went on to found Americans for Campaign Reform in 2003. “But across the spectrum of the public in New Hampshire and nationally, it was not a top issue.”
That’s no longer the case.
In poll after poll, Americans express a growing frustration with a system they say allows rich donors, corporations and special interests to drown out the voices of average voters. And campaign finance reform is now a regular topic on the campaign trail, as well.
In a recent poll by the New York Times, two thirds of respondents – including 55 percent of Republicans – said the wealthy have too much influence over elections. The Times reported that an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – believe the current campaign-finance system needs a major overhaul, with 46 percent saying it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.
Those findings and others give hope to reformers like Rauh.
“We can feel across the country the people’s concern,” he said. “Voters want big money out of politics.”
But translating those sentiments into action won’t be easy, as the landscape for reform has only grown more challenging over the past decade. A series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled most of the post-Watergate campaign-finance rules, tilting the field toward those who argue the right to spend freely on elections is protected by the First Amendment.
Still, presidential candidates from both parties are talking about the issue as they crisscross New Hampshire on their way to the 2016 primary. The two parties, however, have different visions of what reform should look like.
On the Democratic side, candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders say they would find a way – through a constitutional amendment or by nominating like-minded Supreme Court justices – to overturn court rulings that opened the door for outside political groups to spend unlimited amounts on elections.
Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are strong proponents of publicly funded elections, which reformers say would leverage the contributions of small donors and reduce the influence of the wealthy.
Republican contenders, on the other hand, tend to support fewer regulations on political spending, but back more robust rules on disclosure.
Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have all spoken of the need for greater transparency. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have vowed to crack down on lobbyists.
While their policy prescriptions may differ, both sides are no doubt aware that many Granite Staters view the current campaign-finance system with deep suspicion.
A 2013 poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 72 percent of respondents opposed the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that lifted the ban on political spending by corporations and unions, paving the way for so-called Super PACs. In the past three years, voters in 69 New Hampshire towns have approved warrant articles urging state lawmakers to join a nationwide effort to overturn the decision.
Dan Weeks, executive director of New Hampshire Rebellion, which aims to make money in politics a key issue in 2016, says Citizens United galvanized the reform movement and attracted a new wave of activists.
Earlier this year, the group deployed 500 volunteers to question candidates about specific reforms they would support should they be elected president. Weeks says volunteers have so far documented 35 responses from a “majority” of the contenders, with audio and video of statements being added to the group’s on-line platform every day.
“I think the public gets it with a clarity we haven’t had before and an urgency that we haven’t seen before,” Weeks says.
But, while polls suggest voters are more aligned with reformers than ever, whether the issue will influence their decision at the ballot box is another question.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, says voters are still primarily motivated by issues like the economy.
“Most ordinary voters feel like something is up, like the system doesn’t quite work well and that there is corruption,” Scala says. “But my personal opinion is most voters shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s just how it is,’ and so it’s difficult to build a campaign around a plan to change it.”
Indeed, in Congress, numerous legislative efforts to encourage a public funding mechanism that could stand up to Super PAC funding have repeatedly stalled.
Bills currently in both the House and Senate would create a voluntary system in which individuals would receive tax credits for contributions, while candidates would receive a 6-1 match for donations up to $150. Combined, the bills have nearly 220 co-sponsors, only two of which are Republicans.
Reformers acknowledge that they still have a ways to go before they gain the critical mass necessary to force change.
Weeks says the next step is to get candidates to start talking about how wealthy donors can have outsized influence on policy making. On the right, that might be the role lobbyists play in increasing government spending. On the left, it might be the insurance industry’s role in health care policy.
Rauh, who has been watching public opinion on the issue for more than 40 years, says that once candidates start drawing those conclusions, campaign-finance reform will rise as a topic of concern.
“I have no doubt that in time it will clearly be of that import,” he said. “And frankly if we are to have a healthy democracy there is no choice – it has to happen. Every other policy is affected by who we elect.”