Campaign finance reform is one of the hottest political issues of recent years, a strong influence on the decisions of voters throughout the country.

Uh, not quite.

The way Asst. Prof. Jennifer Steen (Political Science) sees it, campaign finance has taken on the air of a can't-miss summer blockbuster movie that, in the end, drops from the marquee after a fortnight.

Jennifer Steen
"Very, very few elections have been won or lost because of the voters' opinion on campaign finance reform or on the financing of any individual campaign," said Steen, who has offered her expertise on the issue to the New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio, among others.

Don't expect the Massachusetts gubernatorial race to advance the cause of campaign finance reform, either, Steen says.

"In the primary the main campaign finance story was the role of the state Clean Elections Law. Warren Tolman, the only gubernatorial candidate to participate in the program, received almost $4 million in public funds and placed last in the Democratic primary. In fact, in the whole state only two 'Clean Elections candidates' won their primaries.

"This track record will not likely encourage future candidates to participate in the public financing system. Of course, the system might not survive anyway. Repeal advocates may get a boost to their cause from a backlash against Tolman's use of negative ads - proponents of clean elections may not have envisioned the program paying for this sort of campaigning."

As Shannon O'Brien and Mitt Romney battle for governor, Steen will be scrutinizing the candidates' use of significant personal funds.

"Romney is certainly willing and able to do so; he has plenty of dough, and in his 1994 campaign against Senator Kennedy he showed that doesn't mind spending it," she said. "On the Democratic side, O'Brien's running mate Chris Gabrieli also has a track record of self-financing, having provided $5 million in personal funds to his 1998 campaign for the House of Representatives. Self-financing is becoming more and more common in US elections, a trend that raises disturbing questions about the nature of our democracy."

The media's track record in detailing the significance and progress of campaign finance reform efforts has not exactly enlightened the voting public, according to Steen.

"The media tends to write about campaign finance reform as a battle between good and evil," she explained. "The reformers are the good guys, and the 'entrenched incumbents' and 'special interests' are the bad guys."

Steen has her eye on a pending US Supreme Court decision on a challenge mounted by US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)to current federal campaign finance law.

"We could see a very different campaign finance landscape in the next round of federal elections, including the 2004 presidential race. And I expect the contours of that landscape to continue changing. Throughout the 1990s, parties and interest groups came up with very creative ways to communicate their messages, violating the spirit of campaign finance regulations without actually breaking the law. I can't wait to see what they come up with next."
-Sean Smith


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