Opinion: Columnists

Citizens United: The dog that never barked

By |
Photo - United States Supreme Court
United States Supreme Court
Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

The howls of outrage began almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in January

2010. It continued for months afterward.

The New York Times warned that the decision, which overturned restrictions on corporate political speech -- that is, spending and advertising -- would allow "a relatively small cadre of deep-pocketed donors" to "buy the election."

President Obama similarly warned of "flood of attack ads run by shadow groups" and added that he "can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest." Not even, apparently, a deeper recession or another terrorist attack. He even used a State if the Union address to scold the court publicly.

Then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann ranted that the case "might actually have more dire implications than Dred Scott v. Sandford."

Well, as the dust settles from the 2012 election, we can see that those predictions were every bit as hysterically overwrought as they seemed at the time. Citizens United did allow corporations and deep-pocketed donors to pour lots of money into a campaign ... much of which was simply wasted.

Among the presidential campaigns, the party committees and outside groups trying to affect the presidential race, the Republican side raised $1.03 billion this election cycle. The Democrats were very much in the same ballpark at $932 million. In short, Citizens United did not put the Democrats at a steep fundraising disadvantage. In fact, Obama's campaign ended with $93 million still in the bank -- he ended up raising more money than he could actually spend.

One of the things often overlooked about the Citizens United decision was that it removed campaign restrictions on Big Labor too. That balanced out a lot of the corporate spending. Unions represented seven of the top 20 donors, both to candidates and tax-exempt 527 fundraising groups.

It's also not clear how much difference unlimited donations made. Money isn't everything. Republican Linda McMahon spent $97 million of her own money in her two Connecticut Senate bids (something that was legal before Citizens United) and came away empty-handed.

Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson spent $20 million on Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary (also legal before Citizens United) and still couldn't sell Newt to Republicans. The various Crossroads groups associated with Karl Rove raised $300 million and intervened mostly on behalf of candidates who ended up losing.

The Chicken Little voices seem to have forgotten that money isn't everything. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee $152 million $136 million but still couldn't retake the House. The DCCC spent more than $15 million for each of the nine net seats Democrats appear to have picked up.

There are extenuating details that explain these various defeats. The House GOP retained its majority mainly thanks to a new and more favorable 10-year map. Nationally, Republicans were outhustled by the Democrats in their get-out-the-vote efforts. They were further hobbled by various gaffes, a misreading of the public mood and a willful blindness towards what the polls indicated.

And that's sort of the point: Those factors, among others, counted for much more than the money that was raised. Elections are about persuading people and revving up your own supporters. Money helps in that regard, but once you've got enough to mount a campaign and get your message out, you reach what economists call the point of diminishing returns. At some point, no amount of money can increase your support any further.

It's even possible that groups like Rove's Crossroads proved counterproductive. They so saturated the airwaves with ads in swing states like Ohio they may have turned off voters.

Many pundits make the mistake of assuming that money raised equals votes won, because money buys airwaves. But it is never that simple.

The political philosopher Eric Hoffer noted: "The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe."

And that's always true, no matter how much you spend.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

This column has been updated to clarify that much election spending in 2012 had nothing to do with the Citizens United decision anyway.

View article comments Leave a comment