The "Appearance of Corruption:" Linking Public Opinion and Campaign Finance Reform

Election Law Journal, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 510-523 (2020)

32 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2016 Last revised: 20 Mar 2023

See all articles by Douglas M. Spencer

Douglas M. Spencer

University of Colorado Law School

Alexander Theodoridis

University of California, Merced

Date Written: July 17, 2019


At present, campaign finance regulations may only be justified if their primary purpose is to prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption. References to the “appearance of corruption” are ubiquitous in campaign finance decisions, yet courts have provided very little guidance about what the phrase means. In this paper, we report findings from a broadly representative national survey in which we 1) directly ask respondents to identify behaviors that appear politically corrupt, and 2) indirectly measure perceptions of corruption using a novel paired-choice conjoint experiment asking respondents to choose which of two randomly generated candidates are more likely to do something corrupt while in office. Our findings both support and challenge current campaign finance jurisprudence. Our direct item shows that bribery is considered to be the most politically corrupt behavior, while wealthy self-funded candidates are not perceived as corrupting the political system. These findings support the reliance of courts on bribery as the primary justification for campaign finance rules, and the courts’ dismissal of regulations targeting wealthy candidates. However, most of our respondents perceived many common behaviors besides bribery to be "very corrupt," challenging courts' reliance on bribery as the sole justification for campaign finance rules. Our conjoint experiment, designed to force trade-offs between various behaviors, similarly reveals little differentiation across candidate campaign finance profiles, suggesting voters may not distinguish common behaviors in terms of their corrupting role. A normatively positive result in our conjoint analysis is that partisans do not appear to define corruptibility on the basis of in-/out-party signals.

Keywords: Campaign finance, corruption, conjoint experiment, survey data, politics, regulation, judicial review

JEL Classification: C13, D72, K39, K4, P37

Suggested Citation

Spencer, Douglas M. and Theodoridis, Alexander, The "Appearance of Corruption:" Linking Public Opinion and Campaign Finance Reform (July 17, 2019). Election Law Journal, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 510-523 (2020), Available at SSRN:

Douglas M. Spencer (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

Alexander Theodoridis

University of California, Merced ( email )

P.O. Box 2039
Merced, CA 95344
United States

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