The Impact of Unlimited Corporate Campaign Spending

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In the final weeks before the midterms, ads are flooding the airwaves, inflaming partisan passions once again on the issue of campaign finance. On both sides, commentators are looking back at the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in January, which removed some limits on special interest spending. How much of an effect is newly available money going to have, and how concerned should we be?

  • A Case Study: Colorado's New Ads  The state is "ground zero for what’s happening in John Roberts's America," writes The New York Times' Timothy Egan. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, the state is being inundated with ugly attack ads from "out-of-state, secretive political groups." Egan doesn't think money always "determine[s] electoral outcomes," but does think "the Citizens United decision of the Roberts court has fundamentally changed how we choose our leaders and our laws, all for the worse." For example:
All hours. All mediums. A football game-break brings three attacks in a row, calling a senator a liar, a vandal and a glutton for debt. A weather update is interrupted by a trio of hits from the other side, making the challenger out to be the worst thing for women since Neanderthal man took up a club as an accessory to romance. ... Every day sets a new record. Last Friday, there were 1,200 television ads in Las Vegas for the Senate race.
  • Except Citizens United Didn't Actually Do That Much  The Atlantic's Chris Good talks to some campaign finance law experts. "Special interests," he explains, can do a lot of ugly things right now, "but not because of the Supreme Court's January ruling. ... Citizens United didn't open the floodgates, on its own, in the way Democrats have insinuated." A number of the things Democrats are complaining about were possible prior to the ruling. For example: "501(c)4 groups never had to disclose their donors."
  • Does Money Really Make a Difference?  Media consultants and partisans may want to believe money is important, says The New York Times' David Brooks. For consultants, it's a matter of self-interest, and for politicos, it's an easy scapegoat in case of defeat."But I can't see why the rest of us should believe this. The evidence to support it is so slight." He cites several cases of candidates winning despite being outspent by their opponents.
  • Well, It's a Lot of Money, counters liberal Glenn Greenwald, who takes issue with some of the numbers Brooks cites. Going by "the real amounts just ... two entities (Chamber of Commerce and [Karl] Rove) themselves say they will spend--$75 million and $65 million--that total, $140 million, will be a substantial chunk of the total amount being spent in all races." And that, adds Greenwald, is "just from two entities."
  • Not Foreign Money, Though  In The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove hits back at liberals going on about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's foreign contributors and the consquent effect on democracy. Says Rove: "These smears were too much even for the New York Times, which noted ... that 'Democrats have offered no evidence that the chamber is using foreign money to influence the elections.'" Democrats might want to take a look at their own campaign activities, he adds. One example:
[Obama's] ... White House political director ... came from the Service Employees International Union, which doesn't disclose its campaign contributors and admitted earlier this week that it might be spending money from foreign nationals on this year's elections.
  • A Defense of the Citizens United Decision  Floyd Abrams, who represented Republican Senator Mitch McConnell as an amicus curiae in the Citizens United case, is surprised by the anger against the decision. He points out at Yale Law Journal that "the logic of the government's position" in Citizens United "appeared to lead inexorably to the proposition that books as well could constitutionally be banned if funded by corporations or unions at times close to a primary or election." He doesn't deny the ad money issue isn't disturbing: "What I find inexplicable is the willingness of so many not even to acknowledge, let alone weigh, the powerful First Amendment interests at all." He concludes:
When I think of Citizens United, I think of Citizens United. I think of the political documentary it produced, one designed to persuade the public to reject a candidate for the presidency. And I ask myself a question: if that's not what the First Amendment is about, what is?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.