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The High Cost Of Free Speech

Publication Date: 
April 08, 2014
The New York Times - Opinion Pages
Thomas B. Edsall

Research from Professor Nathaniel Persily is cited in this New York Times op-ed by Thomas B. Edsall on the public perception of campaign finance laws. 

After the so-called Sheldon primary, when four potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination went to Las Vegas over the last weekend in March to court the casino owner Sheldon Adelson, it took a heavy dose of audacity on the part of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to claim on April 2 that “ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption.”

Roberts is the author of last week’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated the $123,200 cap on the amount an individual can contribute to federal candidates and political parties. How much does this matter? The McCutcheon decision will allow a presidential candidate to solicit “as much as $1.2 million per donor in a two-year election cycle” and will permit a House leader to raise “as much as $2.3 million per donor in a two-year election cycle,” according to Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform.


Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School analyzed public opinion polls filed by plaintiffs and defendants in the 2003 Supreme Court campaign finance case, McConnell v. F.E.C.

Persily found that “the public perceives a great deal of corruption arising from campaign contributions” and that “the American public believes that contributors exert undue influence over the decisions of members of Congress.”

Persily cited one opinion survey, jointly conducted by the pollsters Mark Mellman and Richard Wirthlin, which posed the question “How much impact do you think big contributions to political parties have on decisions made by the federal government in Washington, D.C.?” Fifty-five percent of respondents said “a great deal”; 23 percent said “some”; 5 percent said “not too much”; and 1 percent said “none at all” (16 percent had no opinion).