Americans may be sharply divided on other issues, but they are united in their view of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that unleashed a torrent of political spending: They hate it.
In a new Bloomberg Politics national poll, 78 percent of those responding said the Citizens United ruling should be overturned, compared with 17 percent who called it a good decision.
“Wow. Wow. I'm stunned,” said David Strauss, a constitutional law professor who teaches at the University of Chicago. “What it suggests is that Citizens United has become a symbol for what people perceive to be a much larger problem, which is the undue influence of wealth in politics.”
The 5-4 ruling said that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums in support of political causes. That decision, coupled with a lower court's rejection of a ceiling on contributions to political groups, opened the way for the super-PACs that are expected to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 presidential race.
Unhappiness with the 2010 decision cuts across demographic and partisan and ideological lines. Although the ruling was fashioned by the court’s conservative majority, Republicans oppose Citizens United 80 percent to 18 percent, according to the poll. Democrats oppose 83 percent to 13 percent, and independents, 71 percent to 22 percent. Among self-described liberals, conservatives, and moderates, 80 percent say the decision should be overturned.
“I would have assumed that by now there would have been a more partisan context to it,” said Trevor Potter, a Citizens United critic and former Federal Election Commission chairman who serves as president of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “This one is not seen in partisan context, just with overwhelming disapproval. The reason, I think, is that most people don’t think that corporations and unions have First Amendment rights to engage in campaign activity.”
Democratic candidates are aiming to harness the hostility toward Citizens United in the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley all say they will insist that their Supreme Court nominees oppose Citizens United. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig is running a quixotic campaign based solely on his vow to reduce the influence of money in politics.
The broad opposition to Citizens United stands in contrast to the polarized views of the Supreme Court's recent decision backing Obamacare tax subsidies. Democrats supported that ruling 79 percent to 15 percent in the poll, while Republicans opposed it 77-18. Overall, 49 percent said it was a good decision, and 44 percent called for it to be overturned.
Another recent Supreme Court decision—the June ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide—fared better in the poll, with 54 percent supporting and 42 percent opposing. And by a margin of 67 percent to 29 percent, those surveyed said the court was right to rule that women have a constitutional right to abortion.
Forty-six percent said they had a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court, with 42 percent saying they had an unfavorable view. By a margin of 57 percent to 36 percent, those surveyed said state officials should be bound by Supreme Court decisions that affect the way they do their jobs. That question suggested only limited sympathies for officials like Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who briefly went to jail for blocking the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, and who has been lionized by some Republican presidential candidates.
On Citizens United, the poll asked about the Supreme Court ruling that said “corporations and unions may spend unlimited amounts on political causes.” The question didn’t mention Citizens United by name or describe the free speech interest invoked by the majority. The wording may have exacerbated the skepticism toward the ruling, says Lawrence Baum, a specialist in judicial politics who teaches at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“It would be interesting to see what the breakdown of opinion would be if a question described the court as ruling that individuals and organizations have a First Amendment right to spend money on campaigns as they see fit,” Baum said. “There might be considerably more support for the decision.”
Still, the poll indicates deep suspicion of a campaign finance system seen as giving outsize influence to the wealthy. Asked whether the system should be reformed so that a rich person doesn’t have more influence than a person without money, 87 percent said yes and only 12 percent said no.
“People are very unhappy with what they're seeing with money and politics,” Potter said.
The poll of 1,001 U.S. adults was conducted Sept. 18-21 by the Iowa-based Selzer & Co. and has a margin of error of plus/minus 3.1 percentage points.