The full report, including multiple videos from the research, appears below, or, download a pdf (with external links to the videos).

Money as “Corruption” vs Money as “Barrier”

Re-framing the Problem of Money in Politics

September 2015


Despite wide and deep frustration with government, with the current state of campaigns, and with corporate and special interest influence over policies and regulations, advocates seeking to advance reforms that stem the influence of money in politics say they have been frustrated by a lack of public engagement on the issue.

In “Beyond ‘Bought’” we raised the strategic question of whether the seeming lack of public engagement is due to indifference or cynicism. If the main problem is indifference or a sense that this issue is not very important to the public, then it makes sense to forge ahead with communications strategies designed to increase the salience of the issue. However, if cynicism about the effectiveness or likelihood of reform is a fundamental obstacle to public engagement, then communications has to convince people that change is possible.

This new research finds that the American public is certainly not indifferent to the problem. Clearly people understand the gravity of the situation, so dialing up the intensity of discourse about the corrupting influence of money will do little to further public engagement on the issue. It also finds that simply talking about policy solutions does not break through the wall of cynicism.

At the heart of public disengagement stands a framing challenge. In “Beyond ‘Bought’” we identified an overriding obstacle in framing the issue. By and large, the frames that dominate public debate are driven by a fundamental, narrowly defined, idea:


The original research reported on here confirms and extends our conclusions about the way this frame limits and constrains people’s thinking on the issue.

The corrupting influence of money in politics, the idea that politicians have been bought, is already cultural common sense. This basic understanding is consistent, durable, broadly shared across the population, and easily accessible. People talk about the problem fluently and in detail. Adding further emphasis to this way of understanding the issue will do little to increase salience or engagement.

Problematically, this way of understanding the issue prevents widespread public engagement in the solution for a number of reasons:

The long-term result is that people become angry, pessimistic, and distanced from government, rather than engaged in saving it.

One of the most important priorities for communicators must be to redirect people’s anger away from pessimism and condemnation of government and toward a more optimistic engagement with reform and good governance.

It’s extremely important to break the cycle of monetary influence in politics, however, I just don’t feel it’ll happen. The people who would be in charge of making the laws to prevent it, are the same people who benefit from it. There’s a conflict there.
(25-year old conservative woman, MN)
The people who can change all this are the ones who benefit most from the current system, so they are not going to unless really forced. Rats to the core, they will do whatever it takes to save their own skin.
(46-year old liberal man, NC)

In the course of this research, Topos identified a reframe that engages people in the right solutions, while creating a more optimistic, hopeful view of the government we can and should have:


Rather than focus on how money influences decisions, it focuses on how our current system for elections excludes most people from taking part – in particular how barriers – especially lack of money – keep regular people from running and being elected.

In this BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame, the problem of government is not specifically about money, but rather about how government is no longer representative of the diversity of the population at large. The frame is not simply about making sure the interests of regular people are represented by government. It is specifically about how regular people are, in the current system, prevented from running or becoming elected.

While for insiders and experts it doesn’t matter who does the representing, as long as the people’s interests are represented, for ordinary people, it matters a great deal.

They want to see the best possible people in office, no matter their financial circumstances or connections. They want to see more people like them elected to office, and trust them to understand and represent the people’s will. To ensure the best people have an opportunity to run, they are motivated to deal with the barriers that prevent them from being elected, especially money.

The frame shift can be easily demonstrated with two quotes from Senator Bernie Sanders:

Politicians are Bought

Billionaires are giving very strong support to elected officials who will do exactly the opposite of what the American people want. I think that’s a pretty pathetic situation. This is how corrupt Washington has become.

Bernie Sanders

Barriers to Running

We want a campaign finance system that ordinary people can run for office on without being dependent on the Koch Brothers and other billionaires.

Bernie Sanders
Meet the Press
July 26, 2015

The BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame is a very easy model to evoke in people. They feel many elected officials do not represent them or their interests, and they worry that this will not change as long as elections require candidates to raise such vast sums of money – since only people with wealth – or who can connect to people with wealth – are able to get in the game and win elected office. Elections are limited to those with wealth or with connections to wealth, shutting out people who might do a great job for constituents if given the chance. In contrast to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame has a number of positive effects that will move the conversation toward engaging in solutions:

The report that follows explores these frames and their effects in depth, and provides suggestions for how communicators can shift the debate.

Average Joes can’t get into politics because they can’t afford the cost of running a successful campaign.
(40-year old conservative woman, MO)


Developed over a decade of close collaboration between its three principals – a cognitive linguist, a public opinion strategist, and a cultural anthropologist – Topos’ approach is designed to deliver communications tools with a proven capacity to shift perspectives in more constructive directions, give communicators a deeper picture of the issue dynamics they are confronting, and suggest the fundamentally different alternatives available to them.

The research for this project has consisted of in-depth interviews with experts and advocates in the field, a media review, TalkBack testing of potential approaches, small group conversations with US voters, and ethnographic field research in California and Missouri. The methods are designed to yield complementary findings as the researchers move between one and another – e.g. interviews and a media analysis help identify the current approaches and the most problematic dynamics that messages must overcome, while TalkBack testing enables a broad-based testing of numerous approaches across hundreds of research subjects. Small groups and ethnographic field testing enable researchers to gauge how promising messages fair in actual discourse.


In the TalkBack method, developed by Topos principals, individual subjects are presented with brief texts (roughly 100 words) and then asked a number of open-ended questions, focusing in part on subjects’ ability to repeat the core of the message, or pass it along to others. TalkBack texts generally focus on conveying a single key concept, such as a particular aspect of money in politics. New terms are often introduced as well (usually identified as terms that “experts” use), in order to test their potential to strengthen communication.

TalkBack testing assesses several key dimensions of a communications approach, including:

Messages that do well in these ways have the capacity to change minds, engage support, and enter the culture as new “common sense.”

40+ distinct TalkBack paragraphs were tested among 700+ subjects, drawn from around the US.


The defining strength of the anthropological approach is to provide a deeper view into people’s lived experience of the world. The primary tool of anthropology is ethnography – based on engaging with people where they live, work and play, and on their own terms rather than on terms imposed by the researcher. One of the key goals of these semi-structured conversations is to introduce particular ideas and frames and then encourage subjects to think aloud about the topic, rather than reproducing opinions they have stated or heard before.

In practice this entails engaging people in impromptu conversations. To be considered useful, interactions take at least 5 but no more than 40 minutes, depending on how much time and willingness a given subject has to delve into the topics. The conversations are often one on one, but also include three or four way exchanges.

One of the keys to the ethnographic method is to allow patterns to emerge from natural interactions as much as possible. In the brand of ethnographic field testing that Topos undertakes, we decide ahead of time what kinds of topics we would like to cover – what terrain we want to be on, so to speak. We design questions and comments that are structured enough to put us into that terrain, but loose enough to elicit unexpected responses and rejoinders. Researchers are professional anthropologists trained and experienced in the techniques needed to maintain and direct these kinds of semi-structured conversations.

Across 8 days in April and May 2015, ethnographers conducted over 100 of these encounters in Kansas City, Missouri, San Jose, California and Stockton, California. Most were audio- or videotaped for later analysis.



Our research confirms that, in a general sense, the issue that advocates are concerned with is familiar to members of the public – Americans are aware and concerned that money in politics is having a negative impact on our democracy and our society.

According to a widely shared understanding, money has come to play a central role in how government operates and sets its priorities. As a consequence, politicians and their policies too often serve the interests of the wealthy and well-connected instead of serving the interests of regular people.

This understanding is shared by the majority of people we spoke with, cutting across lines of age, ethnicity, geography, socio-economic level, and political orientation. While language and emphases, as well as responses to the problem, can vary across individuals and groups, the basic understanding is consistent, durable, broadly shared, and easily accessible. People talk about the issue fluently and in detail. For this reason we refer to it as being part of Americans’ “cultural common sense.”

Money is the root of the political system. Those with the deepest pockets get to make the more important decisions.(48-year old conservative woman, PA)
It plays a big role in getting politicians elected and influencing policy. Lobbying also is money – influencing politicians to vote for policies favoring the lobbyists. (67-year old liberal man, WA)
Money in our political system is what fuels corruption and deal-making that only benefits the organizations that have it. (30-year old conservative man, IL)
It is the driving factor. Money speaks and people listen. It is the strings moving all the puppets. (31-year old moderate woman, KY)
Money breeds corruption... Some politicians are greedy and can be bought for the right price. When you vote for someone corrupt you vote for their backer. (31-year old liberal man, MA)
The people with the most money to give in politics are the ones who behind the scenes are shaping future political decisions.
(59-year old moderate woman, IL)


Very often, social science research reveals a wide and important gap between how “average people” understand a given public interest issue, and anything resembling an expert model. Typically there are differences not only in the degree of richness and detail available to experts vs. laypeople, but also in the understanding of what the issue is fundamentally about. For example, when we first started investigating the issue of global warming, we found that many laypeople simply didn’t grasp that global warming is happening because excess carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere and trapping the sun’s heat. This is a very basic level of understanding that was not accessible to average people, who often had wildly inaccurate theories about what global warming is and/or comes from (sun’s natural cycles, etc.) – and therefore had difficulty engaging with discussions of solutions.

By contrast, the people we talked to in this research have a partial but clearly understood theory of the role of money in politics. They get that wealthy interests contribute money to politicians and that this slants political decision-making in favor of those who give money, and away from ordinary folks.

Experts of course have a much broader model of the role of money in politics, one that includes a broad variety of causal effects and pathways.

People believe that money buys influence and power.

The model average Americans use to understand the issue is POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT. That is, in exchange for money, government officials and politicians agree to serve the narrower interests of their financial backers rather than serve the interests of the people who elected them.

This lay model isn’t just a simplified version of the expert model, of course. For one thing laypeople tend not to euphemize the problem – e.g. by referring to it as “money in politics;” they don’t shy away from the term “corruption” regardless of whether the activities in question are technically legal or not.

Candidates seem bought and sold.
(34-year old conservative man, FL)
When it comes to politics, corruption is rampant. It has even been declared legal.(36-year old moderate man, MO)
Government is a dirty thing... There are going to be people who have money that want to implement their own type of change, not what’s really in the needs of the country or what we desire. Money talks. (46-year old moderate woman, MA)

There are also differences in details, and in degree of emphasis. For example, laypeople don’t distinguish clearly between money that is going to politicians personally (as outright bribery) and money that is going to their campaigns.

Sadly, [money] buys votes, it misleads the average voter, corrupts those in power, and ensures that whoever has the most of it will most likely win. (45-year old moderate man, SD)
Some of our politicians seem like they will do anything to get extra money and kickbacks any way they can... the things that get done faster are for the benefit of the politicians themselves. The politicians get richer at the citizens’ expense and it is such a vicious and unfair cycle.
(69-year old African-American woman, CA)
Our system is too far gone for an honest candidate to be elected into political office without accepting money from big business.(38-year old moderate man, OH)
It corrupts people; it allows legislation to be enacted that is beneficial to special interests only; and it can turn good people bad.(54-year old liberal woman, TX)
People understand that fundraising and campaign donations are a main conduit for money.

Although Americans are not opposed to fundraising and political donations in principle, they clearly believe that they serve as a primary way through which wealthy donors and special interests corrupt the democratic process.

When the politicians receive donations from special interests, they then become puppets – slaves to those donors. They will cater their term in office to doing what their donors want. The people get screwed as a result. (41-year old liberal woman, NV)
Without money, potential candidates cannot get the advertising that they need to get elected. Unfortunately, once elected into office, almost all politicians make choices that are based on what their major funders want them to do. (19-year old conservative woman, MI)
Basically politicians depend on a huge amount of money to run their campaigns. As a result, they try to respond more to the concerns of wealthy donors and special interests than they do to the concerns of voters. (31-year old liberal man, WA)
They see an exclusive club where people enrich one another.

People understand that corruption means more than just cash changing hands. They have a generalized sense that politicians, judges, wealthy donors, corporations, lobbyists and so on exist at another level as a kind of exclusive club – where money, favors and influence are traded and sold in ways that enrich the members of the club, and where regular people have little role or voice.

Nowadays people only run for office to get lobbying jobs and for the wealth and status. (26-year old moderate woman, LA)
Our government is getting more and more dysfunctional because our elected officials are more concerned with helping their friends with deep pockets than the average person. (62-year old liberal woman, OH)
The reality is only wealthy people can really participate. (44-year old liberal woman, CA)
Industries... bribe politicians into enforcing policies that are only fair for their industries. The government will also give an insane amount of money to private contractors who most likely have friends in government. (23-year old moderate man, CO)

There are a number of important ways in which the layperson’s model is less complete than the expert model. For example, non-insiders don’t tend to grasp the concept of public matching funds, nor myriad ways in which money can exert indirect influence, for example through the variety of revolving-door mechanisms that allow interested parties to use implicit promises of lucrative jobs down the road to indirectly influence officials’ decision-making.

But the fundamentals of the expert model and lay model are clearly compatible. In addition, many of the people we talked to had a rich grasp of the issue, or at least of some specific aspect of the issue, based on media coverage or conversations with knowledgeable peers. It was not easily predictable who would know what about the broad issue of money in politics.

Additionally, when we gave people information about the extensive reach of money in politics that they might not be familiar with – such as contributions to judges’ elections by interested parties, or the implications of the Citizens United decision – people tended to be appalled but not deeply surprised.

In fact, the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT model is so deeply established and so negatively charged that essentially no new outrage is capable of changing people’s basic take on the situation. This is a very important consideration given how tempting it is for advocates to believe that “the next scandal” will create a meaningful tipping point.


The most striking aspect of the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame is how it entails a combination of great outrage and profound pessimism.

Although people share the expert diagnosis that campaign financing and its accompanying cronyism have corrupted the democratic process, they view this as a problem that is beyond reach of any of the proposed solutions. When the focus is money, government and politicians are seen as nestled together with wealthy and powerful elites in a relationship that excludes regular people, almost as though all dynamics related to money and power were removed to an alternate, unreachable plane, which regular people have no access or connection to.

Familiar solutions such as more active voting, campaign finance reform, holding politicians or donors more accountable, better enforcement of regulations, making political donations oneself, or even getting involved in politics – all seem to fall well short of what is needed to influence a money-driven world that feels increasingly distant and out of touch.

Diagram: Money in Politics Dynamic

The “Money-in-politics” dynamic happens in a realm that average people have no experience with, and no clear understanding of. The players are by definition more powerful than regular folks, and the whole system is largely beyond our reach.

I do not feel that the citizens have much say in anything any more. The government does what they want to do. (72-year old conservative woman, GA)
I don’t think there is much the average citizen can do to break the cycle because money and wealth and generations of experience and influence are a very tough combination to be beaten by people who honestly have no idea what they are doing and little idea of what is even going on. (26-year old liberal woman, HI)
The rich are going to make sure that they prosper, and unfortunately, they’ve kind of wheedled their way into the political spectrum so that truly, I don’t think that any normal, sane person in America feels that they’re represented anymore. And I don’t even care whether they’re out in the boonies on the farms or in the urban areas in the cities, I mean it’s kind of like it’s them and us. (65-year old liberal woman, AZ)
Currently the 1% are buying government representation. People are no longer represented, only the corporations and billionaires who have an agenda are buying “democracy”. (64-year old liberal woman, FL)
You can't stop money.

In the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT model, it makes perfect sense that those wealthy and powerful people who give politicians money will expect and receive benefits in turn – often at the expense of the public good. It also makes sense that they will have ways of disguising corruption and evading detection and regulation. It is, after all, what those involved in corruption normally do.

So when it comes to regulating or limiting how money flows within the distant and self-contained world of political corruption, average citizens see little hope of success. People assume that elites will find ways around any effort to interfere with money and continue the corrupt behaviors.

How could we guarantee that people won’t get money from non-approved sources? This seems almost impossible. (43-year old moderate woman, MI)
This is tough to stop. There are too many back channels. (55-year old liberal man, OH)
No matter what laws we put into effect to stop money coming in, there is always some itty bitty loop hole that will allow the money to funnel in. It will just be called something different. (43-year old conservative woman, MI)
You can’t take money out of our political system; it IS the political system. (22-year old liberal man, CA)
The laws that currently exist are skirted – cleverly avoided by many legislators and I suspect future laws will be treated in the same fashion. Just like you can’t ban evil, you can’t completely eliminate the substantial role that money plays in influencing politics and government power. (34-year old moderate, NC)
Money talks and all politicians are corrupt. (46-year old conservative man, WI)
Corruption cannot be stopped. It seems that only those with large sums of money can make a difference. (62-year old conservative woman, IL)
There is no way to stop it. More restrictions equals more people going around the restrictions. (23-year old conservative man, NJ)

When directly challenged about whether it is better to give up or try to do something – many people express the idea that some action is better than no action, but their lack of optimism is striking.

Suppose you were having a discussion about this topic with a friend or relative who said, “We’re not going to be able to stop money in politics. They’ll find a way around it.” How would you respond?
You’re probably right, in a capitalist society money is power, but we can try to set up stumbling blocks to make it less easy. (58-year old liberal man, NH)
It’s true that financial corruption will always be a permanent fixture in politics, but there are most likely still ways to lessen the problem. (35-year old conservative man, ID)
I would agree but I would say that shouldn’t stop us from trying to do something. (29-year old moderate man, CA)
That’s probably true but that doesn’t mean that we should lie down and let it happen. (77-year old liberal woman, TN)
At least we don’t have to make it easy.
(33-year old liberal woman, NY)
We can at least try instead of rolling over.
(37-year old liberal man, TN)

In the “elevated” realm where government takes place, and money and favors change hands, regular people feel they have little access and they see no reason why things would change in any substantial way.

Why would bought politicians stop the flow of money?

The POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame creates outrage. It strongly implies that a public trust is being broken and that we need better policing or official reform in order to solve the issue. Unfortunately, when the system as a whole is understood in terms of collusion between government officials and wealthy elites, there is little reason to expect the system to police or reform itself.

When Americans think about this issue there is a widespread conviction that politicians are fundamentally unwilling to address the issue. The idea that positive change could occur can even seem to defy common sense.

Money runs politics and there is nothing the public can do about it, because it’s the corrupt politicians that vote to make changes to how the system works. (47-year old moderate woman, MO)
The people who can change all this are the ones who benefit most from the current system, so they are not going to unless really forced. Rats to the core, they will do whatever it takes to save their own skin. (46-year old liberal man, NC)
The political system is set up to allow money to buy power. Citizens and reform laws cannot overcome the way the system is run. (54-year old conservative man, IL)
I think it’s going to be hard to break the cycle, especially since the ones in Congress who make the laws don’t seem to want to. (46-year old moderate woman, CA)
It’s extremely important to break the cycle of monetary influence in politics, however, I just don’t feel it’ll happen. The people who would be in charge of making the laws to prevent it, are the same people who benefit from it. There’s a conflict there. (25-year old conservative woman, MN)
I feel as an average citizen there is little I can do to prevent large money donors to have influence on laws and regulations. Trying to limit that amount contributed with strict rules and penalties that are enforced might help some. But when the corrupt are in control, it is almost impossible to have them pass legislation that is specific to them. (62-year old conservative woman, IL)

And even well-intentioned reformers in government are subject to being “bought” or simply marginalized by a corrupt system.

Money dominates every facet of the political system. Even the most well-meaning candidates might find themselves sucked into a slippery slope trying to get enough funds to compete with the political elite. (33-year old liberal woman, NY)
Money has an enormous and way too powerful role in our political system. It has corrupted politicians and has bought their positions and votes on legislation. (37-year old moderate man, AZ)
Politicians will act once in office according to who is giving them, or offering them, the most money. Lobbying makes this influence perpetual. (35-year old conservative man, CA)
No matter what the laws are, the politicians seem to be exempt from it. They cover for one another, unless it suits their own agenda. (57-year old conservative woman, IL)

The POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame – being about systemic criminality – is powerfully discrediting to the idea of government policies as a way of solving problems.

One of the most important priorities for communicators must be to redirect people’s anger away from pessimism and condemnation of government and toward a more optimistic engagement with reform and good governance.


Money in politics is seen as a profound departure from the principles that define American Democracy, from the ideals we learn in school about how our system of government is supposed to work.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this issue is an existential problem that challenges many people’s sense of who we are and whether American society is likely to continue in recognizable form.

We need to find a way to stop it or this country as a democratic union will cease to exist. (44-year old moderate woman, NC)
Money and influence have replaced the power and value each of us originally had under the Constitution and Bill of Rights that our founding fathers wrote. (26-year old moderate woman, LA)
Ideas aren’t listened to anymore in politics. Younger generations have begun to give up on politics in general. By the time anyone gets to a higher level of politics they are only a talking head for those that are paying them to say so. (29-year old liberal man, CO)
We should try our level best for our country to make it for all – not for the few people who are trying to keep the political power in their hands for self profit, wealth and prosperity. (31-year old moderate man, NY)
We have fallen a long way as a country. Gone are the days of one man, one vote. (27-year old liberal woman, MS)
America has no chance as a country if we continue to tolerate [what] is essentially open bribery. (46-year old liberal man, NC)
The founders of this country never intended to create a democracy that is for sale. Which is what we now have. (38-year old moderate man, CT)

In contrast to many issue areas where advocates’ primary hurdle is to convince people that we have a problem worthy of serious attention – in the case of Money in Politics, people are all too aware of the problem, or at least some of its important aspects and implications. It is the solutions that are difficult for them to see.


One of the most important areas where the thinking of advocates and laypeople differs is in their psychological reactions to the problem and to proposed solutions.

Ordinary Americans diverge strongly from advocates and experts in feeling, at a visceral level, that the problem of money in politics is largely unsolvable and inevitable. While there are obviously large differences between individuals, nearly everyone believes that money in politics is with us to stay, is getting worse rather than better, and may ultimately prove to be our undoing as a nation.

We can use the metaphor of psychological quicksand to describe the effect that thinking about money in politics has on many people. Our conversations showed a strong pattern of discouragement, negative feelings, and often anger as people discuss the ubiquity of what they see as a profound degree of corruption in the political sphere – resulting in people not engaging seriously and practically with the issue.

Psychological defense mechanisms

Feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness are uncomfortable and unwelcome for most people. When people think about government through the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT lens, they think about betrayal and about others getting things that were meant to be for them.

Unfortunately, this means that the problem elicits a number of counterproductive responses, which might be thought of as psychological defense mechanisms. People find ways to avoid thoughts about a topic like death, for instance, and the influence of money feels to many like a kind of death spiral.

There’s very little that can be done about the role of money in politics, so it’s not worth wasting the time to try. (40-year old liberal woman, IL)
The structure will be difficult to break, and I don’t think that action from the bottom will affect the situation at all. (26-year old moderate woman, CA)
The country’s gone to Hell and the average citizen is too manipulated by disinformation to do much. (44-year old conservative woman, KY)

In our conversations, many people agreed wholeheartedly that the corrupting influence of money in politics is a huge problem in American life, talked a bit about how nothing much could be done about it, scoffed at any proposed solutions and quickly proceeded to change the subject. They did not find discussion of possible solutions particularly engaging.

I think the situation is mostly hopeless... Citizens who cared should change it by voting out those who take “bribes,” but we don’t care enough. (29-year old moderate man, WI)
Seeing the way politics have gone the past few decades, it seems like it’s time to try and stop the influence of money in politics but I’m skeptical of making that happen. (36-year old liberal man, NY)
[I’m] being pragmatic, nothing is going to change. (35-year old conservative man, CA)
No matter what, money pulls the strings.
(26-year old liberal woman, TN)

For this reason, people avoid really engaging with the topic in constructive ways. The POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame promotes outrage, which can sometimes overcome people’s avoidance, but for reasons discussed above, it tends to deepen rather than alleviate people’s sense of powerlessness.


People often show a jaded lack of surprise about new information relating to the problem of Money in Politics, no matter how shocking. There seems to be a kind of cultivated cynicism about the whole issue: If we can’t do anything about it, we might as well joke about it.

Particularly unproductive is the tendency for nearly any possible solution to be dismissed out of hand as unlikely to achieve the desired result.

Limiting campaign money would be a start in the right direction, but I am sure if this happens, politicians will find a way around it. They always do. (53-year old liberal man, OH)
Money and wealth control politics and they find ways around any so-called limits. (53-year old conservative man, TN)
I’m not naïve. Money will continue to play a big role in politics as long as someone has something to gain.
(62-year old liberal woman, OH)
Money and wealth has played a major role in politics and I cannot see it going away anytime soon.
(64-year old moderate woman, RI)
Money will remain in politics... I think that it is a bit naïve to think that people can break the cycle.
(44-year old moderate woman, VA)

One way for people to deal with anxieties about how we solve this problem is to simply give up and decide that there is no solution.

Radical measures and fantasies of revolution

On both ends of the political spectrum, many express frustration that the only thing that might change things is a citizen uprising. Because none of the normal levers of influence seem to have any effect, people often voice a desire for more radical approaches.

At the same time, this rhetoric seems, for the people we spoke with, to be about letting off steam rather than taking action.

Details of the “radical” solutions might differ based on people’s political leanings, but these visions share the same underlying sense that the entire apple cart needs to be upended, and that what advocates see as more practical solutions can feel like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There comes a time when the state of the Union has become so corrupted that the people are forced to band together and fight for true democracy. (44-year old moderate woman, NC)
There’s going to be some kind of revolution or something... I’m about as fed up as can possibly be, and my 17-year-old can see how broken the system is and that pretty soon it’s going to lead to that. The only way it will happen is it’s going to be a revolution. (56-year old conservative woman, CA)
You know how ISIS is recruiting young people in Britain and the US? It’s because these kids are sick of a system that works against them. (52-year old moderate man, MO)
If the people get wise and revolt we will get a new system.
(36-year old moderate man, TX)
I think citizen action will have little effect... unless there is some sort of revolution – just because money plays such a huge role in how our country operates. (25-year old conservative man, MN)
The whole things going down. The dollar’s going to collapse, so don’t bother with politics. (18-year old apolitical man, MO)

It’s important to reiterate that these sentiments are not being expressed by people with any real intention of taking part in an uprising, which is why we describe them as fantasies. They represent a kind of psychological release for frustrations and anxieties that can’t be relieved in real life.


The researchers were struck at how often discussion of concrete policy ideas seems to intensify people’s feelings of disempowerment and negativity (the quicksand effect). Normally, we find that focusing on solutions – especially when the problem is as well-understood as money in politics – can help restore positive energy in support of policy approaches.

In this case, however, the proposed solutions seem to serve mainly to deepen people’s pessimism that nothing is likely to change. Solutions such as donation limits, greater transparency, public matching funds, citizen activism and so on simply seem inadequate to address such profound problems as a corrupted system taken over by the wealthy and powerful, and government as a distant entity in which we have little or no say. Although it is easy to trigger anger and outrage, and elicit support for certain proposals that could inhibit or punish wealthy politicians (e.g. donation limits, greater transparency), people voice little optimism that such reforms will result in substantive change in a deeply corrupt system.

Campaign contribution disclosure laws already exist, and so do restrictions regarding cronyism... How will more laws in this area be more effective than the ones that already exist? (34-year old moderate, NC)
There have been numerous governmental and political reform laws instituted in the past, which have done little or nothing to control corruption by politicians.
(54-year old conservative man, IL)
I really would like to believe we can change our current political establishment. I’m just not sure if we can. Money has corrupted our government. (39-year old moderate woman, WA)
Regardless of our efforts, money and wealth will still continue to dominate politics. (25-year old moderate woman, LA)


There is no question that the public is still capable of feelings of betrayal and anger when informed about particularly egregious instances of what feels to them like corruption.

The change-potential of this outrage is, however, blunted by the difficulty the public has in imagining an alternative political system – i.e., one in which money can actually be “kept out.” In fact, this hopelessness deepens as people learn more about the rules of the system – exemplified by the Citizens United decision. Every instance of (what seems like) corruption that is not punished serves to reinforce their sense of a game that is rigged and approved at the highest level.



The POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame strongly inhibits belief in a path forward, and as we have seen, undermines most conversations about reducing the effects of money in politics. It defines the challenge as fighting against a coalition of wealthy and powerful interests and finding ways to keep their money from influencing the political process. As people think about money (at once concrete and abstract, both hard cash that they will never have access to and ungraspable influence), they find it very difficult to imagine a world where money doesn’t buy influence and impossible to believe that the politicians who benefit will ever seek to change things.

Our research discovered that people are able to think about the problem in a related but different way, that is much more constructive. Rather than focus on how money influences decisions, it focuses on how our current system for elections excludes most people from taking part – and especially how the need for money acts as a barrier keeping regular people from being elected.

You have to be wealthy to even participate. Travel, ads, paying staff, looking good, that all costs a considerable amount. Sure, you can do it with campaign contributions, but the reality is only wealthy people can really participate. That means our government consists mostly of rich people who have no idea what it is like to struggle. (44-year old liberal woman, CA)
There are many educated people who simply just do not have the money to even consider running for office. Maybe if a hard working Midwesterner could make it, we would see a different perspective. (33-year old liberal woman, IA)
If we want our political system to better reflect the will of the citizens that it serves, then we need more representation of common people in the system. (39-year old moderate man, OH)
Give the common man the ability to run. Because as politics go, only the rich need apply and they don’t care about middle and lower class America. (62-year old conservative woman, AL)

To insiders this frame may not seem like a fundamentally different way of understanding the issue – it’s still about the nefarious effects of money in politics. In fact, the idea of a “money primary” is not new to insiders. To regular people, though, this is a qualitatively different conversation.

In this BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame, the problem of government is not specifically about money, but rather about obstacles to running that keep good people, a diversity of Americans, from running for and winning office. Instead of representing the interests of the population at large, the only ones who can overcome the money barrier are those who end up representing the wealthy interests and backers who have enabled them to get elected and who will enable them to get re-elected.

The problem of Money in Politics is re-framed to focus on how the need for vast sums of campaign money, and other factors, act as barriers that prevent the majority of Americans from being able to participate in elected government and serve as representatives for their communities. In fact, the ability to amass enough money for a campaign has become the defining characteristic of a serious campaign.

The essential points to this “Barriers to Running” story are:

Running for elected office requires personal wealth or support from wealthy and powerful people, which acts as a barrier that prevents regular people from being elected and representing their communities.

This limits our choices to just those candidates who can amass huge sums of money.

To restore a more representative government, and to have the ability to elect the very best representatives, we need to address the barriers that prevent ordinary people from running for office.

The BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame is a very easy model to evoke in people. They already feel their elected officials do not represent them or their interests. It is also easy for them to see that this will not change as long as elections require candidates to raise such vast sums of money – since only people with wealth – or who can connect to people with wealth – are able to get in the game and win elected office. In cognitive terms, it is extremely “easy to think,” as well as being more vivid and compelling than other more abstract metaphors.

It is easy for people to appreciate the connection between these barriers and many of the problems with our government and our democracy that are so troubling to people. As long as regular people are excluded from the process, it seems natural to people that representatives tend strongly to support the interests of the wealthy – whether because they are beholden to their backers or because they are now enmeshed in the upper class themselves.

The people of the United States are feeling unrepresented because people in power are not people like themselves or representative of themselves, in terms of their wants and their needs, their lifestyles. (65-year old liberal woman, CA)
We want our leaders to be in touch with the people they are representing and work for us, not the top tier of people who have deep pockets. (31-year old moderate woman, AL)
Average Joes can’t get into politics because they can’t afford the cost of running a successful campaign. (40-year old conservative woman, MO)
I’ve seen good candidates drop out of a race because of lack of funds. (51-year old conservative woman, AL)
Finances limit the choices that we have in a public election. (35-year old moderate man, OH)
I really wish it would get back to the government by the people and for the people like originally planned. (38-year old conservative woman, MN)

In order to compete in a modern election a candidate needs money for airtime and publications, for travel and outreach, for staff and equipment and so on. People see vast sums being spent on ubiquitous advertising with the better-funded drowning out the poorly-funded. In short, it is near impossible for someone to get into the game without wealth or access to wealth. It is obvious to people that the end result is a government that looks after the interests of the wealthy and politically influential.


In contrast to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame supports the policy suite of campaign reform in a way that not only makes sense, but offers an appropriate and believable route to change – in particular, reclaiming a government of, by and for the people.

The explicit solution is to enable a wider swath of people to get elected to representative office – and the most obvious way to do this is to both reduce the scale of the money barrier (e.g. with donation limits and spending limits) and to help more candidates cross the barrier by creating supports and routes that enable people to run for office, get their message out, and reach voters (e.g. with public matching funds, equal airtime policies, mandatory debates, etc.).

Diagram: Barriers to Running

In effect, the policies shrink down the amount of money that a potential candidate requires and reduce the currently insurmountable advantage that wealth represents. Donation limits and spending caps are attractive to people because they shrink the size of the monetary barrier, while supports like equal airtime and public funding further enable the non-wealthy to get their message across to voters and supporters. This approach focuses on the barriers to election – “making it easier for regular people to be in the game.”

It is important to remember that the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame creates a general mind-set and way of understanding how the issue works. It does not pre-determine the exact policies that will accomplish the goal of reducing barriers faced by ordinary people who want to run for office. Two important findings emerged from the research on this point:

First, people tended to volunteer a list of policy preferences that overlapped with, but was not identical to, the policy preferences of advocates. This is in part due to the fact that some policy ideas are more conceptually accessible, and in part because laypeople’s thinking is not constrained by considerations about what is politically feasible, or what the Courts have deemed acceptable. So for example, people tended to bring up limiting spending much more often than limiting donations – because it is a more intuitive, direct solution. Similarly, they often brought up the idea of free airtime for candidates, not high on the list of advocate priorities. At the same time, once the re-frame had been evoked, people talked much less about either term limits or revolution – neither of which seem to them to address the issue at hand.

Second, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame made the policies that are preferred by advocates – but that were previously unfamiliar to them – much easier to grasp and to accept. For example, the idea of public financing of elections was not often volunteered by participants, was initially rejected or not understood by them, but made sense once the new frame had been evoked.

In general, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame sets up the policy suite preferred by advocates, but also allows for additional reforms that may arise in the future.

The following is not intended as a recommendation about policies to advance. Rather, it is intended to demonstrate how the reframe supports a vast array of solutions, from public financing to donation limits.

Limits on Fundraising

One way of reducing the barrier is to limit the amount of money being gathered. People readily recognize the way in which campaign finance reforms could reduce the burden of modern campaigning in ways that enable non-wealthy candidates to compete. In particular, capping campaign donations and putting limits on fundraising.

By limiting the amount of campaign donations and sources the rich and powerful candidates can use... the little man can have a chance to be heard... By putting some rules in place it will open the door for other less affluent but qualified candidates. (55-year old conservative woman, FL)
It’s impossible for an average American to run for office since they can’t compete with the slick politicians who are backed by superpacs. We little guys have to ensure there is campaign finance reform and similar rules to ensure that us little guys can get in office so actual Americans are being represented – not big business. (46-year old moderate man, NV)
Limit...the amount of money, because how can it be fair if one person has millions of dollars to promote themselves, and the other individual has $100,000... I mean if there was a way to level the playing field, then whoever felt that they were qualified and had a desire to help change things in government, and would want to give the time and the effort to do so, I would think would be able to run. (56-year old conservative woman, CA)
Who else but the citizenry can and will try to make the difference? We must set limits and that means telling people how much they can give – but not to whom.
(84-year old liberal man, WI)

The most common objection to caps on donations was that politicians might just get around them, which shows how the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame can reassert itself, especially when the solution seems to be about coming between powerful politicians and their donors.

I like the idea of limiting campaign funding, but I feel that politicians will find ways of funneling money. (60-year old conservative woman, WA)
I believe strongly that we should limit the amount of money that campaigns can spend (and thus, how much the donors can spend to influence)... However, I also do believe that money and wealth will continue to dominate more and more. (37-year old liberal woman, VA)

In addition, a significant minority of people understand that Citizens United has limited our ability to regulate donations.

Reducing the scale of the campaign

Even more than donation caps, people gravitated strongly to solutions that reduced the overall scale of campaigning – in particular the idea of spending limits or time limits.

[England] just had an election for a new Prime Minister. It was 30 days from start to finish. Can you imagine how it would be in the United States if we had a 30-day presidential campaign? That would be wonderful. (73-year old conservative man, AZ)
If they could go back to limiting spending by politicians – you can only make so much money on your campaign, to spend on your campaign, or if you could have equal time on the tube or even the internet or whatever, and have more debates, I think you’d see more of a true politician. (50-year old liberal man, CA)
Just limit the time when you can campaign and of course limiting the amount of money you can spend on a campaign I think would be critical. (66-year old liberal woman, MO)
If you don’t put a cap on how much money can be spent, only those with wealth will succeed.
(33-year old conservative woman, NC)

When people were using the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, they often voice support for such campaign limits, but usually as a way of punishing politicians and trying to constrict the flow of corrupting money. In the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame subjects dwelt more constructively on the potential to bring a wider variety of candidate into the system.

Public Financing: Giving non-wealthy candidates a hand

In the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame when campaign support policies such as public matching funds were explained to people, they found it absurd that we would give despised politicians help or free money. In the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame, however, fundraising is framed as a barrier and a burden rather than a source of corruption, and people easily grasp the rationale for making public funds available as a way of ensuring that the best candidates, rather than the wealthiest or best connected can run for election.

Having a broader background of candidates if there’s a matching of funds – I think it might open the doors for people who could possibly run, who might want to be in office rather than somebody’s who’s rich. (40-year old conservative woman, MI)
If there was public money that was available to help make the spending amounts that different candidates have more equal so that they could purchase the advertising and be able to travel and campaign around the country so that people get to know them, I think that would help a great deal. (64-year old liberal man, IN)
I think the idea of trying to get regular people to run is good... I do like the idea of publicly matching funds for smaller campaigns or having something equivalent to scholarships to help good regular people run for election.
(38-year old conservative woman, FL)

In many cases they volunteered additional policy proposals – especially equal time regulations for television and radio and publically supported forums like debates and websites which would allow all candidates to get their messages out – rather than competing expensively for attention on television.

Equal time in terms of ad campaigns and having a presence on television and in other media... definitely gives lower funded candidates... the ability to be seen and be heard, compared to just the top few. (29-year old liberal man, NY)
If there was a forum where the candidates for office could be presented, showing their points of view and what they would accomplish once their in office, where that could be presented on an equal basis for the various candidates for a given office, rather than those with large treasure chests being able to inundate TV and radio and so forth with their points of view. (64-year old liberal man, IN)
I like the equal time, TV time, because it seems in the big races, like presidential and senatorial, the person that has the most money and can flood the airwaves the last couple of weeks with just negative, negative stuff about the other candidate... And the guy that’s being attacked, if he doesn’t have as much money, can’t get his messages out. (54-year old conservative man, IL)
The airwaves do belong to the public, and they’re licensed, and that should be written into the license that you have an obligation to provide more public service information, candidate information, whatever. (49-year old liberal man, WI)

These were some of the most popular and most often spontaneously introduced policy ideas, perhaps because the cost of “getting your message out” was the most familiar campaign expense to people.

In this frame, most of the policies that advocates propose make sense to people as a way to create a pathway for regular people to get their message out, to run campaigns and to begin representing the people of their communities rather than wealthy benefactors and donors.

Non-monetary barriers

Although the daunting expenses of running a campaign were the most top of mind barrier to the election of regular people, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame is also relevant to other kinds of barriers to citizen participation, including cronyism, voter suppression and gerrymandering.

I do think there is some of, like, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back getting people into offices. I think there might be less cronyism in having people with less financial resources take office, and I think they could be equally, if not more, qualified than some of their more well-funded counterparts. (64-year old liberal man, IN)

This research focused most on campaign finance reform, so more research would be needed, but it seems clear that the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame has potential to help in other efforts that restore greater democracy to the political system.


The negative emotional reaction that is typical with the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame is replaced by a more engaged, less cynical response. This clear, concrete story is more energizing as people focus on this problem and its potential solutions.

The natural solution is to do what it takes “to put people like me in government.” The question becomes, “What do we do to let people in, and enable them to get past the obstacles?”

The policy suite becomes a sensible and appropriate response to the problem of representation and the way in which the influence of wealth has derailed democracy.

Most of the politicians in my area are wealthy and well-connected and they definitely don’t necessarily represent the interests of the average resident... To improve representation, we need to elect “regular people” who are not super wealthy and are not well-connected. (30-year old conservative woman, CA)
We need to have better representation so that our views and needs are better met by the government and our elected officials... We need campaign finance reform which sets limits on the amount of donations and hold people accountable for where the money comes from so that we can have more regular people who are not rich run for office. (44-year old liberal woman, NJ)
I do believe in setting a cap. Because someone can’t raise as much money as another candidate doesn’t mean she/ he isn’t a good choice for America. (58-year old liberal woman, CA)


The BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame leads to thinking that is much more compatible than the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame with a belief in effective government. In short, it allows for optimism, whereas a focus on the corrupting influence of money promotes mental quicksand.

I think you would get more of a fair representation of the country if you took steps – campaign reform to limit donations and things like that. (54-year old conservative man, IL)
It resonates with the American ideal of Democracy – a government of, by and for the people.

The Re-frame jibes with this well-established model of the ideal government – and speaks to the possibility of a return to a more functional democracy.

I am very hopeful that by citizens acting to improve the election process in the United States, elections can be what they are supposed to be: people choosing others to represent them based on their views on major issues. When elections are a money and popularity contest, the purpose of voting pretty much becomes void. (36-year old moderate woman, MA)

In contrast to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, which intensifies antipathy toward government, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame builds on people’s desire to have a functional and representative government, in which citizens have scope for action and some hope for success.

Campaign finance reform is important for every region as it ensures that the best candidate wins, not the one with the largest bankroll. (24-year old liberal man, NJ)
The political system will be strengthened by aligning more candidates on equal footing. (44-year old moderate man, CO)

People regard this approach as a way of strengthening the sort of government that we were meant to have.

Rather than demonizing all politicians as corrupt (or at best soon to be corrupted), the re-frame helps bring an alternative idea to the forefront – that we should change the way we run and finance campaigns in order get the best possible representation from our elected officials.

I believe that if there is a limit on how much can be spent, then a political campaign won’t be so much show of money and will be more of who has the better ideas and with that should help break the cycle of spending money. (53-year old conservative woman, MO)
Sometimes the elected officials want to just focus on the people, but have to play the money game and instead try to raise funds and take their time and attention away from the issues. (30-year old conservative woman, IL)
It’s so sad seeing potentially great politicians – Obama, Bill de Blasio – having to travel the country for cash when they could be doing great things. Our country suffers as a result. (58-year old liberal man, NY)

People want better choices. Few are anxious to take to the streets, and most are drawn to the idea that they could vote in people who might respond to their desires rather than those of special (wealthy) interests.

Reform seems more practical and doable.

One sign of a successful frame – or organizing idea – is that it enables people to creatively engage with a topic and generate further ideas and approaches toward a solution – a mode we call “practical problem-solving.”

In contrast to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, which inspires anger and cynicism, the idea of a barrier to representation inspires many people to go into a problem-solving mode where they begin to think about ways in which the advantages of money can be reduced or overcome.

We should allocate each candidate a certain amount of television time, and perhaps some money. It should be equal across the board, though, and that should be the only money allowed in politics. (58-year old liberal man, NY)
We need to have better representation so that our views and needs are better met by the government and our elected officials... We need campaign finance reform which sets limits on the amount of donations and hold people accountable for where the money comes from so that we can have more regular people who are not rich run for office. (44-year old liberal woman, NJ)
I think the idea of trying to get regular people to run is good, but I don’t think the maximum cap one or the disclosure idea is going to be followed. I believe they’ll find a way around it also. I do like the idea of maybe public matching funds for smaller campaigns or having something equivalent to scholarships to help good regular people run for election. (38-year old conservative woman, FL)

In contrast to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT model, which encourages either despair or fantasies of insurrection, taking on the money barrier strikes people as a potentially realistic and pragmatic approach to the current crisis.

Fortunately, we have, I would call it a grassroots swelling of people that are now able to institute change whereby they can elect people into positions of power without regard to privilege or money. (65-year old liberal woman, AZ)
That might be true that we cannot stop money in politics completely, but we can take some measures to create a more equal playing field for would-be candidates. It might be a slow process to completely change the system, but we can take steps to address the disparity between the rich and connected and the regular person. (45-year old conservative man, CA)
We struggle with making “representative” government a reality in this country. But there are policies being put in place to level the playing field for candidates so that wealth won’t be the lone determinant of who gets elected. (31-year old liberal man, IN)

People believe that electing more representatives from the grass roots will have a positive effect.

We need to turn this country away from being turned into an oligarchy... This nation is in danger of being run by an unqualified wealthy class who do not represent the wishes or interests of the common citizen and there is a movement afoot to stop it... We have the tools to use democratic means to thwart moneyed interests if more people will actively participate in their local and state selection and election processes... We need to stimulate popular political participation and use new tools to fund less beholden candidates. (81-year old moderate man, CA)
If we elect those who are more in touch with the average citizen, we may see more problems solved in a more efficient manner. (32-year old conservative woman, GA)


In the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame, curbing the flow of money is viewed as a way of punishing politicians and interfering with influence peddling and graft, and is tightly tied with anti-government feelings. People assume that in spite of reform efforts, corruption continues, perhaps at a somewhat decreased rate. There is little or no structural reform implied, nor redemption for rank and file politicians.

On the other hand, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING re-frame places a focus on the difficulties of mounting a campaign, and so makes amassing a campaign war chest less an exercise in corruption and more an added burden for representatives.

In fact, it is surprising the degree to which people believe that reducing the amount of money needed for election means better governance after the election.

People readily understand that if elected officials were under less pressure to fundraise – not only would they be less beholden to wealthy donors, but they would be able to focus better on “the people’s business” even when not engaged in re-election.

For example, people exposed to a BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame were posed with the following question:

People have been surprised to see a positive side effect when we reduce the role of big money and level the playing field in elections. Namely, elected officials have been able to focus more on their jobs and less on trying to raise money for their next campaign. How significant do you think this is?

Their responses often showed that they could see clear benefits when in the new mindset as opposed to the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT mindset.

This shows that reducing the role of money and leveling the playing field in elections does actually make a difference when it comes to more work getting done. (36-year old moderate woman, MA)
This is MAJOR. Rather than rubbing elbows with folks, our elected officials should be working on creating solutions to problems and promoting the well being of our country and its citizens. (32-year old conservative woman, GA)
If they have more time to focus on their jobs then they can really serve the people. (35-year old conservative woman, KY)
This is HUGE! I read recently that congresspeople in the United States spend only a fraction of a regular work year in their offices... They need to focus on the jobs that citizens elect them to do and not worry too much about whether they will have enough money to get re-elected. (37-year old liberal woman, VA)
This is very significant because officials can focus on the important matters, like how to improve the lives of citizens, instead of focusing so heavily on raising money. (30-year old conservative woman, CA)
I think it is extremely significant. A huge portion of time is spent on raising money for their campaigns. If they could spend that time on doing their actual jobs, I think everyone would reap the benefits. (35-year old conservative man, NC)
I think it is very significant! I think that as soon as people get elected they start raising money to get reelected. If they spent all their time in office working for the people (the whole reason they were elected in the first place) then America would not be on a decline. (44-year old conservative woman, VA)

Even among people don’t overcome their antipathy toward politicians the benefits are still clear.

Politicians may start functioning as they were expected when running for office and stop wasting time sucking on the nipple of greedy cash donors whose interests often are opposite of whom voted themselves into office. (59-year old liberal woman, PA)
It means that you can make the decisions that are right for America, not just ones that are right for the corporations/ lobbyists giving you money. (27-year old moderate man, NC)

While it is obvious that this re-frame doesn’t do away with thoughts of corruption and shady politicians, it brings to life an alternate view of the government official who seeks to represent their constituents, but is hindered by the need to amass campaign contributions.


An important aspect of the re-frame is that is seen as essentially non-partisan, and appeals to people across boundaries of ethnicity and geography. People are attracted to the idea of being given a wider selection of potential candidates – including ones from diverse backgrounds and social class, in part because they feel such representation would be more responsive to their particular experiences and needs as well as the needs of their community – however defined.

In California there is a huge Hispanic population that is underrepresented and it would be nice to be able to get our voices heard as well. (25-year old liberal woman, CA)
[This is] very significant. Most of the people in Nebraska are small town – farmer type of people. They are not wealthy businessmen. (45-year old liberal woman, NE)
In every area of the country most people are not wealthy and by default the system represents then with wealthy people. (35-year old moderate man, OH)
It opens up the opportunity for the middle class to run for politics. (68-year old liberal woman, IL)
There needs to be campaign finance reform so that we can return to a government by the people for the people. (46-year old conservative woman, NY)
We need to take necessary steps to make sure that our government is represented by a variety of people, not just a few elites with money... The most important thing is that many people take interest and get more involved.
(26-year old liberal woman, VA)

Importantly, this frame is not about picking winners – but getting the best people in. In particular it is not experienced as a progressive or “politically correct” policy, unlike the general strategy of electing officials who “look like America.”

Some good people could get elected that wouldn’t otherwise be able. (35-year old conservative woman, CO)
I do believe in setting a cap. Because someone can’t raise as much money as another candidate doesn’t mean she/ he isn’t a good choice for America. (58-year old liberal woman, CA)
Americans would get a better representation because it wouldn’t only be those that are wealthy that could run for office. We are limiting ourselves to the rich and/or popular. By allowing those that may not have the means to run in an election, we would be opening ourselves up to many more ideas. (35-year old conservative man, NC)

Although liberals and conservatives differ on the details of which of the various approaches are most promising (i.e. many conservatives object to strict limits), the goal of using campaign reform to reclaim representation for regular people has near universal appeal.


The findings are really about a new “mental picture” of the issue that promotes a more constructive, engaged and optimistic perspective. To that end, there is a great deal of flexibility in the specific language to make the case.

The essential points to this “Barriers to Running” story are:

Running for elected office requires personal wealth or support from wealthy and powerful people, which acts as a barrier that prevents regular people from being elected and representing their communities.

This limits our choices to just those candidates who can amass huge sums of money.

To restore a more representative government, and to have the ability to elect the very best representatives, we need to address the barriers that prevent ordinary people from running for office.

The essential ideas underlying the BARRIERS TO RUNNING Frame can be communicated in a variety of ways, for example:

“Running for office has become so expensive that it is nearly impossible for a regular person to get elected. It seems the only people who can run for office are the wealthy or those with connections to the wealthy. As a result, many Americans now feel like they can’t get the kind of representative who would stand up for their interests and points of view. In order to get back to a government “of the people and for the people”, there are efforts around the country to dial back the amount of money elected officials have to pay out of their pockets and raise from donors. Things that are already being done include:

Note: The reframe does not commit advocates to a single set of policies. It is compatible with a broad set of policies – as long as they effectively lower the barriers that keep ordinary people from running for office.

There are a variety of ways to communicate this essential idea and communicators should feel free to be creative as long as they are true to the core idea. For example, including a reference to American democracy is helpful:

“The Founding Fathers made it clear that in a democracy the government is supposed to be ‘by the people.’ Unfortunately, a number of factors – including how much it costs to run a campaign, special interest lobbying and so on have become an obstacle preventing regular people from running for office and representing us in government. There are a number of simple steps we can take to overcome that obstacle and create a government that is ‘by the people.’”

It can also work with the “Price we Pay” approach which ties campaign financing to consequences for people:

“Most people agree that today's elected leaders don’t really represent regular people but rather the big-moneyed interests who employ thousands of lobbyists and millions of dollars to protect their own agendas. As a result we, the American people, personally suffer the consequences – to our health, our environment, and our opportunities to get ahead. One way to change this is to make it easier for regular people who aren’t rich or well connected to get elected and to serve. Reforms that are already working in some places include...”

Beyond the Core Narrative, there are some points to note about particular words and phrases.

“Regular people”

The division between the elites and everyone else is a top of mind idea for most people, and various terms were equally effective for drawing a distinction between wealthy elites and “the rest of us.” “Regular people” was the most commonly used by research participants themselves, but “common people,” “little guy,” “average American” and so on were interchangeable. Likewise, references to “wealth,” “wealthy interests,” “the 1%,” “billionaires,” and “Big Business” were all used to refer to the minority that is currently seen to dominate politics.

If voters believed that everyday people just like them were candidates, they might be more inclined to participate in elections. We also might have a greater variety of people in elected offices. (49-year old conservative woman, TX)
Elected leaders might not be most representative of regular folks because they are usually wealthier and well-connected. (29-year old conservative woman, CA)
People who run for office ought to be able to only receive so much campaign money because it ’s not fair to regular folks who want to run for office. (70-year old moderate woman, TX)
Wealthier and more popular politicians who do not represent our interests are often elected into office because of their pandering to large corporations and their ability to throw glitzy fundraisers. Smaller, less wealthy and popular politicians who do represent the average person’s interests are not elected because their donations are smaller. (30-year old conservative woman, CA)
Representatives are chosen based on monetary worth and influence – not by principles, policies, and campaigns. We end up being stuck with individuals who do not properly represent us and majority of Americans. (36-year old moderate man, LA)
We need more people running for and in office that understand the average American and their needs, problems. We don't need people in office that work for the investors who support their campaigns. (42-year old liberal woman, FL)
Leveling the playing field

The metaphor that most quickly allows people to grasp the core story of making it easier for non-wealthy candidates to compete for office – a metaphor that people readily introduce themselves – is the idea that we need to “level the playing field.”

This familiar metaphor acknowledges that the problem is one of unfair advantage; it emphasizes that this is not about picking winners – or even working against the wealthy, but rather about giving everyone a fair shot at consideration by voters.

(We recognize that there are potential political/legal implications for this phrase. Our interest is solely in the “fit” between this metaphor and a clear and concrete way of thinking about the issue.)

The key idea is that the government is putting a limit on campaign spending to ensure a more evel playing field. This way, not only the wealthy and/or powerful would have the chance of winning an election. (35-year old conservative man, NC)
Everyone should have a chance at running for a government position and the playing field needs to be leveled in respect to money and donations. (21-year old liberal man, TN)
The main key to get back to the level playing field in elections. The people should be voted on their abilities... rather than how much they’re able to raise. (42-year old conservative woman, NC)
The playing field is not level and money is still one of the major, or the major influence on who gets elected.
(84-year old liberal man, WI)
We need a level playing field so that rich or poor, a good person who's honest and wants to make America a better place can take office. (44-year old conservative woman, VA)
I do wish... that they would at least try to stop the big money. Maybe give each candidate the same amount of money to work with for ads and travel and whatever they need so that the field is a level one. (46-year old moderate woman, CA)

Although this formulation is problematic for expert discourse, it encapsulates perfectly people’s desire for election reforms – namely that the current system, which seems to grant overwhelming advantages to the wealthy, be re-made into a system wherein the whole gamut of Americans could compete for election to office.


The general idea that our current system creates obstacles for regular people is an important part of the story that people express in various ways, including use of the term “barriers.”

It will open the door for other less affluent but qualified candidates to be in the playing field. (55-year old conservative woman, FL)
One way to make sure of representation of more regular people is to remove barriers that keep people who are not rich or well connected out of public office. If these barriers are removed, there is a better chance that the voice of the regular person will be heard. (45-year old conservative man, CA)
It’s important to make political office accessible to anyone so that there is more even representation of citizens. Removing barriers, capping expenses may be ways of equalizing the process. (46-year old liberal woman, MI)
The Founders and a government of the people

It is helpful, when telling the Representation story, to include references to the original ideals of representative government, especially Lincoln’s familiar formulation of a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame encapsulates the idea that government is no longer “for the people,” but the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame taps into people’s understanding and recollection that it is also supposed to be “of and by the people” in some sense.

Sample Paragraph:

“It is nearly impossible for a regular person without money or monied connections to get elected these days. This was not what the founders envisioned when they set up a government by the people, for the people. Fortunately, Americans have had enough and are enacting policies that level the playing field so that a greater variety of representatives can get elected to office, and once there, can remain free from the pressure to serve wealthy interests for their next campaign.”

Money is having a greater and greater influence in politics and government decision-making, turning our system away from a government of the people towards a government of the wealthy. (67-year old liberal man, IL)
Democracy was never intended to give the wealthy more influence over politicians, where their money means more that the interests of the people... We need real campaign finance reform that ensures all Americans have a say in their government and not just those with financial influence. (34-year old liberal man, OH)
We must keep trying. The conservative Supreme Court has made it much harder to level the playing field and reduce the effects of money. So, we need at least one amendment to the Bill of Rights to say that Corporations are not people and money is not speech. Government must remain open to the people and all donations above a minimal amount must be traceable to the true donor. (84-year old liberal man, WI)


Before concluding the discussion, it is worth briefly considering the merits and limitations of a few other general approaches to talking about the topic.

Three other general directions show merit but have limits when presented in isolation. In combination with the BARRIERS TO RUNNING approach each of the following may be helpful. Importantly, however, when presented separately from the BARRIERS TO RUNNING approach, their effectiveness is limited.


One way to frame the policies on advocates’ list is that they are about creating barriers to the influx and influence of money – “stemming the tide” as communicators often say.

On one level, this is a simple matter of common sense, akin to the police department’s advice to keep burglars out of your home by “hardening the target” through various simple precautions.

It is hard for Americans to disagree that there are things we can do that will at least somewhat reduce the role of money in politics – including public financing, spending limits, and greater transparency about donations. And a focus on these ideas is helpful in that it can help create a more concrete, focused conversation where people see HOW a given step can be helpful.

The term “safeguards,” in particular, showed signs of being a memorable, common-sense way of referring to certain steps that can help reduce the flow of money and protect our system of government from undue financial influence.

Sample paragraph:

The founders of our country paid a lot of attention to human nature, and a lot of the Constitution is about safeguards that make sure decisions are made for the right reasons. The biggest safeguard that’s missing today is one that prevents candidates from being strongly influenced by the wealthy donors who finance their campaigns. Around the country, people are starting to demand these safeguards, and it is working. Some states have passed tough laws about disclosing campaign contributions. Others have been moving to election campaigns funded by the public rather than the wealthy. And others have voted for a Constitutional amendment to get money out of politics. Pushing for these kinds of safeguards is the best way to make sure we have government “for the people.”

In combination with an emphasis on the founders’ vision for our country, the “safeguards” idea proved relatively clear and convincing.

Q: If you were explaining to a friend the key idea in the paragraph you read, what would you say? (Note: This question followed several “distractor” questions, several screens removed from the original paragraph.)
A: From the founding of our country our leaders set up safeguards to prevent corruption in the political arena. Our laws have become lax in recent years allowing the undue influence of very wealthy donors. Something needs to be done to change this.
Q: Suppose you were having a discussion about this topic with a friend or relative who said, “We’re not going to be able to stop money in politics. They’ll find a way around it.” How would you respond?
A: You’re probably right, in a capitalist society money is power, but we can try to set up stumbling blocks to make it less easy. Our current laws seem to condone the influence. (58-year old liberal man, NH)

Our introduction to Safeguards also included an emphasis on the fact that we are talking about a system which was designed by someone (e.g. the founders or ourselves). This implies it is a system we can also change and reform for the better.

On the other hand, as the last response reflects, discussions about reducing the influence of money in these ways – separate from discussion of the recommended focus on BARRIERS TO RUNNING – is not terribly exciting, and doesn’t effectively offer hope that the problem will be solved.

In the end, in those instances where the “safeguards” approach makes sense, it will be more effective when presented within the more hopeful vision that we can restore true representation.


The idea that citizen action can re-claim the government “for the people” is appealing to many and is even a go-to point – as in “the only way things will change is if the people do something.” In fact, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING approach often inspires people to want to do something, and feels like citizens taking action to reclaim government.

When a natural extension of the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame, this rally to act is natural and effective.

However, as a sole or leading idea, a general call to action can easily lead to a focus on unrealistic, extreme ideas about “revolution” etc. – specifically because it is so difficult for people to imagine that the corrupt institutions of government and wealth can be induced to reform themselves.

Furthermore, an emphasis on the people’s responsibility to do something can also lead to further dismissal and pessimism, since people have seen little evidence that their fellow citizens are up to the challenge.

Sample language:

People talk about getting money out of politics, but a better way to look at it is we need to get more people in. The only solution for fixing the flaws in our political system is to get more average citizens involved – voting, staying informed, rallying, speaking up, volunteering in campaigns, and contributing to campaigns. If we don’t get people back into the process, those with money fill the void and get their pet candidates elected who will do their bidding, no matter what is in the public interest.


The paragraph suggests that average citizens becoming more involved in the political process will magically fix all the problems. (44-year old conservative woman, KY)
I do think that money and wealth will continue to dominate the political process and don’t really believe that citizen action can break the cycle because I think that too many citizens are just too apathetic when it comes to matters of politics. (34-year old conservative woman, OH)

Ultimately for this direction to be helpful, it needs to be grounded in the concrete, achievable call to eliminate barriers to running.


It is tempting to talk about how money in politics diminishes the “voice of the people,” and to frame policies as allowing the people’s voice to be heard. At some level, of course, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING approach is about giving average people more voice.

The ethnographic research suggested that while people strongly agree that this would be a very good thing – and even like the language – framing the issue as about the voice of the people does not go far enough to fundamentally reframe the issue for them in a way that will last. In particular, it doesn’t draw them definitively out of the “psychological quicksand” described earlier.

This might be because the metaphor of voice and being heard is too-familiar political rhetoric. It is firmly part of the existing common sense, and while it may inspire in the short-term, without a more lasting idea to ground it, can lead eventually to feelings of disempowerment.

On the other hand, the metaphor of voice is likely to be effective when used as a supporting point for BARRIERS TO RUNNING.


Shifting the frame from a conversation about “politicians are being bought” to a conversation about “lowering the barriers to running” is compatible with a wide variety of terms and phrases.

The research suggests that the frame shift itself is so robust that the exact language is not as important as changing the focus of the conversation itself. People get the shift very quickly and tend to fill in their own terms and metaphors, regardless of how the idea is presented.


The idea that American government has been hijacked by wealthy interests is a familiar, deeply entrenched, default cultural understanding about the state of our nation, and is reinforced daily in the media and in conversation. Americans are very concerned about what they perceive as the dominant dynamic of our politics – money as an illegitimate but all-powerful guiding force – and are pessimistic that we can make change.

Further reinforcing this understanding, e.g. by pointing to new scandals or new consequences, mainly has the effect of increasing people’s skepticism and fatalism.

And unfortunately, the perceptions associated with the POLITICIANS ARE BOUGHT frame are not likely to go away anytime soon. The pattern is too strong, and the realities it is based on are too ubiquitous and high-profile.

Instead, the research reported on here finds that adding a new story to the conversation, and focusing on this story – a concrete and hopeful narrative about how we can reclaim Representation – inoculates against some of the harms of a focus on the corrupting influence of money, and allows Americans to take a more constructive and engaged stance towards the problem.

As Americans focus on the obstacles to “people like me” getting into office, and the steps that could help, they recall the ideals of American democracy, and begin to see them as part of a concrete and practical vision for the future.

While there are many obstacles in the path of true reform, the BARRIERS TO RUNNING frame is a tool that should help communicators deal with at least some of those obstacles.

Founded by veteran communications strategists Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady of Cultural Logic, and Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge, Topos has as its mission to explore and ultimately transform the landscape of public understanding where public interest issues play out. Our approach is based on the premise that while it is possible to achieve short-term victories on issues through a variety of strategies, real change depends on a fundamental shift in public understanding. Topos was created to bring together the range of expertise needed to understand existing issue dynamics, explore possibilities for creating new issue understanding, develop a proven course of action, and arm advocates with new communications tools to win support. For more information: