Menus Subscribe Search

Following the Money a Year After Citizens United

• January 19, 2011 • 3:46 PM

Observers thought heaps of anonymous cash would flood U.S. campaign coffers after the controversial Supreme Court decision. They were right.

Last January, critics of the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision — which knocked down long-running restrictions on corporate campaign money in elections — envisioned an ominous scene. Anonymous corporate millions would flood into closely contested elections, elbowing out the influence of average voters, warned many (including the president).

Now, at the decision’s one-year anniversary, hard data is beginning to bear out the grave forecasts, contradicting even some of the Supreme Court’s own predictions. In the wake of Citizens United, outside groups in last year’s election spent more than four times what they’d funneled into the previous midterm cycle, in 2006, according to a new Public Citizen report. And voters will never know where much of it came from.

The scale of so much midterm money ($294.2 million in all) more closely resembles what was spent ($301.7 million) during the 2008 presidential election — suggesting voters have seen only a glimpse of what’s to come in 2012.
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]
“I still feel like we’re going to see a lot more in 2012, not just because it will be a presidential cycle, but because of the chance for people to sort of get their systems in order,” said Taylor Lincoln, the research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and one of the report’s authors.

Still, he was struck by the speed with which these groups — organizations not tied to a candidate or a political party itself — were able to act on the new rules. The report relied on spending data turned over to the Federal Election Commission. Groups that didn’t disclose to the FEC any information about the sources of their money spent a combined $135.6 million (or 46 percent of the total).

Nearly half of the total, $138.5 million, came from just 10 groups. And seven of those organizations — including the ambiguously named American Action Network, American Future Fund and Americans for Job Security — provided no donor information.

That lack of transparency is at odds with one prominent prediction last January of what would happen.

“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy reasoned in the majority opinion. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

“Unless you make an incredibly legalistic reading of what he said, he was way off the mark,” Lincoln said. “He conjured this image that IBM, Apple, McDonalds might spend money, and then the viewer [of an ad] would be like, ‘Oh, alright, I like Apple, so I like him. I don’t like McDonalds, so I’m not going to vote for him.’ Of course, none of this corporate spending is done by IBM or McDonalds or whoever. It’s passed into a front group.”

Like, say, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (which did not disclose the source of any of the $16,660,986 it spent to influence the 2010 election).

“You never see an ad from General Electric that says ‘Vote for John Doe,’” Lincoln said. “That just doesn’t happen. The whole Supreme Court decision seemed really naïve. They also talked about shareholders weighing and evaluating the contributions of a company, deciding is this a good thing? Well, they’re never even going to know.”

Lincoln’s biggest concern is not simply that this system corrupts the election process, but that it may wind up corrupting the legislative one, too. A candidate may not know how much of his winning war chest originated with General Electric, but most people in Washington know what kind of legislative outcomes Crossroads GPS is angling for this session, even if the general public does not. (They’re listed on the group’s website, right under the tab “key issues.”)

“The legislative process is the ultimate victim of it because you have candidates coming into office with conflicts,” Lincoln said. “That’s the ultimate reason for campaign finance reform and the ultimate threat that is posed by special interest influence over our elections.”

Seventy-five seats in Congress switched parties in the November election. In 60 of those races, the winning candidate reaped more money from outside spending groups — money that, in some cases, might not have been available were it not for Citizens United. That data comes as close as critics can get in drawing a direct line from the court decision to an election outcome (although any such argument must admit that Democrats were expecting a drubbing in November under any circumstance).

“Scientifically, we really don’t quite know,” Lincoln conceded. “We don’t know what would have happened otherwise [without Citizens United]. But we suspect just based on all that spending, and the fact that a number of these races were fairly close, that it was decisive in a number of them.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.