In the wake of Donald Trump's resounding victory in South Carolina, and Jeb Bush's exit from the presidential race, some in the media rushed to declare that money does not play the dangerous role in politics many feared it would in the wake of Citizens United. These media voices claimed that voters were effectively "overturning" the Citizens United ruling by supporting non-establishment candidates: Trump, who reportedly rejected the super PACs that had formed to support him, and Bernie Sanders, who has raised record amounts from small donors. But this view underestimates some of the unique qualities about this election cycle and ignores the importance of money in congressional, state, and judicial elections.
Bush's exit from the race after his super PAC had raised nearly $100 million led parts of the media to draw the conclusion that outside money has less influence than was thought. While interviewing Sanders on Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked, "The guy who had the biggest super PAC of all time had to drop out of the race. ... [Aren't] the people already overturning Citizens United?" Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a similar statement on Fox & Friends Weekend, saying Bush's defeat and Trump's victory are "basically the end of the meaning of Citizens United. Money is supposed to determine the outcome in politics; the opposite has happened here."
If this sounds familiar, it's because much of the same was said back in September when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made an early exit from the Republican presidential race with millions still left in the super PAC supporting him. Like with the Bush backing Right To Rise PAC, media pointed to the millions raised by the Walker-supporting Unintimidated PAC as proof of "the idea that the power of super-PACs and their billionaire boosters has been overstated." But both Walker's and Bush's cases demonstrate that weak candidates and mismanaged campaigns can doom a campaign whether or not super PACs have a chance to flex their financial muscle.
Much of Walker's early failure was attributed to bungled management that left his campaign struggling to make ends meet while the super PAC was raising millions. The New York Times reported, "Super PACs, Mr. Walker learned, cannot pay rent, phone bills, salaries, airfares or ballot access fees." In Bush's case, his failure to connect with the party's base and a questionable management strategy within his super PAC demonstrated that fundraising is only so valuable without the right candidate or staff.
Plus, dismissing the influence of money in this presidential campaign ignores some of the special circumstances that are unique to this election cycle. Trump's celebrity and the media's infatuation with his campaign have reduced his need for outside support from a super PAC. Super PACs spend much of their money on advertising, but any free air time candidates can generate allows them to push their platforms without spending a dime and counterbalances their opponent's paid efforts.
Trump's star power and his ability to generate media through outlandish comments have translated into massive amounts of free air time. Fox News has devoted more than 28 hours to the candidate since May 1, 2015, and other outlets like MSNBC provided him with exceptional opportunities to be in the media without having to buy advertising. And while Bush and others have been relatively ineffective despite super PAC fortunes, history shows that a major portion of outside spending in the post-Citizens United presidential races is saved for the general election.
Citizens United Impact Not Limited To Presidential Race
When media cite the failures of Walker and Bush as signs that the Citizens United decision allowing a flood of corporate political spending had an overestimated impact on politics, they are ignoring a major portion of the decision's influence. Congressional, state, and judicial races have all seen significant increases in outside spending as a result of Citizens United.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy institute, "Outside spending on Senate elections has more than doubled since 2010, increasing to $486 million in 2014." This money is having a real impact on campaigns as corporations and unions target competitive races, accounting for more spending than that of either candidate campaigns or political parties in 10 of the races analyzed. Furthermore, candidates who won 11 of the most competitive Senate races in 2014 benefited from outside money that was donated without disclosure of the donors -- so called "dark money." This dark money made up over 70 percent of the nonparty outside spending made on behalf of winning campaigns.
Political spending does not just distort national races. Since 2010 there has been a concerted effort by Republicans to take over state legislatures in order to push conservative agendas on a more local level. The effort has been successful as the GOP has won "historic majorities in state legislatures," according to Vox. Research by professors at the University of Alberta and Emory University has shown that Republicans were helped in their efforts by Citizens United, especially as the ruling overturned laws banning corporate and union spending. They report, "Citizens United is associated with a significant increase in Republican election probabilities in states that banned corporate or union independent spending prior to 2010."
Also troubling is Citizens United's impact on judicial elections and the impact outside money is having on the justice system. According to the Brennan Center, the decision led to "special interest groups and political parties [spending] an unprecedented $24.1 million on state court races in 2011-12 -- an increase of over $11 million since 2007-08." Much of this money is spent on negative advertising by outside groups. Experts note that justices who face negative ad campaigns are "less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals" and that judges facing re-election may hand down longer sentences in an attempt to appear tough on crime. Furthermore, law advocates have found that "empirical evidence suggests that campaign contributions to candidates for judicial office can affect judicial decision-making and case outcomes."