Campaign Finance Reform Experts Criticize New Poll

Poll claiming 90 percent of executives favor reform flawed, experts say

July 25, 2013

Campaign finance experts criticized a new survey from a group that advocates corporate disclosure of political spending, saying it uses unscientific polling techniques to falsely tout corporate support for disclosure.

The Committee for Economic Development (CED) released the survey on Wednesday that claimed 90 percent of corporate executives surveyed want the federal government to require companies to disclose all of their political spending.

Critics of the survey say its methodology is flawed, and while it can provide some interesting insight, it should not be used to support changes to federal election policy.

"It is not, and I don’t think the authors purport it to be, a scientific, statistically valid survey," said Bobby Burchfield, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP, at a Wednesday event unveiling the poll.

Burchfield, who argued a key 2003 campaign finance case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Republican National Committee, noted numerous methodological shortcomings that he said cast doubt on the validity of the survey’s findings.

"It would be a mistake to assume that there’s much predictive value, or that public policy should be made on the basis of a non-random, self-selected, Internet survey of 302 people," he said.

While the poll said it surveyed "business leaders," Burchfield noted that respondents included not just those who would normally be thought of as "executives," but also officials with job titles that included "administrator" and "director."

The universe of 7.4 million businesses is too large for a survey of 302 employees to have much to say in terms of the business community’s overall attitudes, he said.

The survey included numerous other questions on the state of the campaign finance system. Respondents overwhelmingly said that the American campaign finance system needs to be reformed and that campaign contributors have too much influence over politicians.

Questions of disclosure have significant policy implications. Democrats have consistently pushed disclosure as a remedy to what they claim was a detrimental Supreme Court decision in 2010’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which recognized wider First Amendment rights for corporations, labor unions, and nonprofit groups.

Democrats have pushed the Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt a rule requiring corporations to disclosure more information about their political spending.

To the extent that CED’s survey is used to support that policy agenda, it is fatally flawed, said former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins.

"They don’t even pretend that it’s scientific," Atkins said of the pollsters behind the effort in an interview. "The whole methodology is screwy. Laughable, actually."

Atkins noted that supposedly widespread support for disclosure requirements in the business community is belied by the fact that so few businesses voluntarily disclose their political spending.

"Clearly they view it not in their interest to support" total disclosure, he said.

Atkins also pointed to statistics compiled by the Manhattan Institute showing that shareholder resolutions concerning political spending among Fortune 200 companies garnered, on average, 17 percent support in 2012.

"I would think that it’s much more consequential for a shareholder to mark his proxy and send it in than it is to respond to an email, online, non-sampled survey," he noted.

CED defended the poll’s methodology in an email.

"The survey was designed and conducted by two leading firms, Hart Research Associates and American Viewpoint, one Democratic and one Republican to ensure balance," said spokeswoman Elise Perkins. "Their methodology is widely used for similar polling of business executives."

Beyond methodological issues, both Atkins and Burchfield claimed that many proponents of disclosure have an ulterior motive: silencing political speech with which they don’t agree.

"We do know that many of the advocates of greater disclosure of political donations have as their agenda not informing the public, but suppression of political speech," Burchfield said.

Steve Odland, CED’s chief executive, also voiced that concern. "We’re very concerned that people on one extreme or the other will favor disclosure and then use disclosure as a weapon against the other side to suppress speech," he said.

"You would hate to have participants on one side saying, ‘look at the discourse on the other side, and let’s boycott that group or that company in order to shame them and suppress that speech,’" Odland added.

That is exactly what many left wing groups have done, Atkins noted. "I think it’s disingenuous the way they pursue [disclosure]. It’s not really about political contributions."

"Disclosure is not an unqualified good," Burchfield said. "There is a tension between open, vigorous debate on the merits and full disclosure."