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Bleg: What Difference did Citizens United Make in the 2010 Election?

- December 15, 2010

I need to come up with a few paragraphs that speaks to the question above. The target audience is undergraduates. The first goal is to state some things we do and don’t know about the impact of “Citizens United v. FEC”:http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/citizens-united-v-federal-election-commission/. The second goal is to remain neutral about the decision itself. I’m not trying to convince students that it was good or bad.

Below is what I’ve written. Assume that if I don’t explain something (BCRA, 501(c)4s), it’s because students would already have encountered it.

Please let me know in comments if you see errors or have some additional thoughts that I should incorporate.

bq. Some commentators feared that the Citizens United decision would lead to a flood of advertising by independent groups. This did not appear to happen. In U.S. Senate races, the fraction of advertisements between September 1 and October 20, 2010, that were sponsored by independent groups, as opposed to candidates or political parties, was no greater in 2010 than in 2008 (see “here”:http://election-ad.research.wesleyan.edu/2010/10/27/spending-update/ ). In U.S. House races, this fraction did increase, from 8% in 2008 to 14% in 2010, but even then advertisements from independent groups were still a very small fraction of the total. It is difficult to determine whether these advertisements had any impact on specific races. Independent groups typically targeted the most competitive races, where the candidates and parties would also be campaigning heavily. The advertisements sponsored by independent groups may have been drowned out amidst the general din of the more numerous advertisements from candidates and parties.

bq. There is a further irony, which is that the most controversial aspects of independent spending in 2010–the role played by 501(c)4 organizations with money from undisclosed donors–was legal before the Citizens United decision. These kinds of organizations had already been growing more popular as vehicles for electioneering, particularly by those who did not want their identities revealed. Moreover, the Supreme Court had “already weakened”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Election_Commission_v._Wisconsin_Right_to_Life,_Inc. BCRA’s restrictions on independent group advertising even before the Citizens United decision. This decision simply weakened them further, mainly by allowing corporations and unions to advocate explicitly for the election or defeat of candidates.

bq. The main change wrought by the Citizens United decision, at least according to some observers, was psychological, not legal, in nature. It simply gave corporations a “greater comfort level,” according to one news account, making them more likely to more likely to spend money to support their favored candidates. In this account, a campaign finance lawyer was quoted calling the decision a “psychological green light.” However, this impression derives from only the 2010 election, the first conducted since the Citizens United decision. Its impact could be magnified in later elections. Moreover, even if independent spending remains a relatively small fraction of the total spending, advocates of campaign finance reform will still highlight that much of this spending depends on donors whose identities do not have to be revealed.