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Campaign Finance and American Democracy

What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters

In recent decades, and particularly since the US Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, lawmakers and other elites have told Americans that stricter campaign finance laws are needed to improve faith in the elections process, increase trust in the government, and counter cynicism toward politics. But as David M. Primo and Jeffrey D. Milyo argue, politicians and the public alike should reconsider the conventional wisdom in light of surprising and comprehensive empirical evidence to the contrary.

Primo and Milyo probe original survey data to determine Americans’ sentiments on the role of money in politics, what drives these sentiments, and why they matter. What Primo and Milyo find is that while many individuals support the idea of reform, they are also skeptical that reform would successfully limit corruption, which Americans believe stains almost every fiber of the political system. Moreover, support for campaign finance restrictions is deeply divided along party lines, reflecting the polarization of our times. Ultimately, Primo and Milyo contend, American attitudes toward money in politics reflect larger fears about the health of American democracy, fears that will not be allayed by campaign finance reform.

Author Information

David M. Primo is professor of political science and business administration and the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor at the University of Rochester. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Rules and Restraint, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Jeffrey D. Milyo is professor of economics and chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri.


“The American public actually knows very little about the federal campaign finance system in the United States—and much of what they think they know is incorrect. Campaign Finance and American Democracy debunks much of the conventional wisdom to shed new light on a topic that has been debated for decades.”
— Candice Nelson, American University

“A timely and fresh look at the intersection of public opinion and campaign finance reform. Primo and Milyo skillfully bring a social choice perspective to bear in challenging the widely held assumptions that money erodes public trust in government and that campaign finance reform will help restore that trust. Through their theoretical arguments and their careful empirical analysis of survey data from mass and elite samples, they marshal an effective case against what they term a ‘romantic’ view of democracy. In so doing, they provide a welcome corrective to the study of campaign finance reform.”
— Thomas Rudolph, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Since at least the 1970s and Buckley v. Valeo, the premise of American campaign finance law has been to prevent corruption and even the appearance of corruption. The debate over Citizens United has brought this question into sharp focus, but the disagreements have nonetheless accepted the core premise of ‘appearance’ as factual. But what if the entire logic of the approach has been based on a false premise? Primo and Milyo examine the empirical public-opinion foundations of campaign finance, and the answers are surprising and important. This book contains the most important and, in some ways, the most surprising information about political perceptions in the past decade.”
— Michael C. Munger, Duke University

“Money has always had a freighted and confusing place in our politics. Primo and Milyo show that what the public wants above all is trust, not simply reform. They show us how attempts at reform have sometimes succeeded but more often failed to build public confidence in our electoral institutions. Most importantly, they offer us a new and constructive way to engage questions about the role of money in American elections.”
— Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University

"In their book, the first after theCitizens Uniteddecision that contrasts public opinion and the scientific consensus on the role of money in American politics, Primo and Milyo set out to uncover what the public thinks about money in politics, what drives the perceptions, and why it matters."

— Futurity

Audience: Professional and scholarly;