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

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. 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©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.

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 ). 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.
There is a further irony, which is that the most controversial aspects of independent spending in 2010—the role played by 501©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. 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.
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.

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

  1. Jared December 15, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Actually, just a typo:

    “… making them more likely to more likely to spend money to support their favored candidates” in the middle of the third paragraph.

  2. Bob Biersack December 15, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    I have a summary table on all independent expenditures and electioneering communications that covers through election day. It appears to show more growth in group activity than the ad buys in the Wesleyan study suggest. If you send me your email address I’ll send you the table (and the data if you want it).

  3. Lee Drutman December 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    Might be worth pulling a few figures from this report:

  4. Deering December 15, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    Ooh, ooh, me too Bob. The data. Plus, like a million other people I imagine.

  5. Clay December 15, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    I’m lost here – Why are we comparing 2010 to 2008? Why aren’t we comparing to the last midterm election 2006?

  6. ZC December 15, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    I agree it would also be instructive, for the students, to put in the 2006 / 2010 comparison.

    It would also be interesting to put in the overall percentage of independent group expenditures, as a share of each party’s total spending, in 2010 (and maybe compare back to 2008 and 2006). Was either party more _reliant_ here, as a share of their total party / candidate / independent group ad spending, in 2010? Absolute spending doesn’t always capture the nuances here – the GOP used to raise more soft money, but relatively speaking it made up a higher percentage of the Democrats’ gross.

    Finally, it might be good here to crunch the numbers just for the truly competitive races, and see if any interesting results change.

    Good survey overall however.

    Zachary Cook
    DePaul University, IL

  7. Emily December 16, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    Great point about comparables, Clay. Wasn’t another consequence of Citizens United timing-related — that is, the possibility of increased candidate-related messages within the election-adjacent window? You might take a look at timing.

    What was an outstanding difference for me in this year’s election advertising was the massive increase in spending on state legislative races. Look downticket for effects.

  8. Mike Sances December 16, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    You might also consider the psychological impact on voters. Polls regarding the decision showed huge majorities against it and in favor of disclosure requirements like the ones proposed to counter it. Some have also argued that the decision will make voters more cynical about politics. While this hasn’t been rigorously tested that I’m aware of, neither has the assertion about a “psychological greenlight” for corporations.

  9. John Sides December 16, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Clay, ZC, Emily: The 2008-2010 comparison is instructive, if only because those are the elections that bracket Citizens United. Fortunately, thanks to this bleg, I got some additional information via email (a forthcoming article) that provides some earlier data, including 2006 and several prior elections.

  10. ZC December 16, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    Though downticket is tricky, right? It was the key redistricting year. Interest groups and national parties were going to take an interest anyway in 2010 that they had not in the past, regardless of CU.

    Zachary Cook,
    DePaul University, IL

  11. Bob Biersack December 16, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Chris (rocket?),
    For you, and the millions like you (well, maybe hundreds)- the raw material for an analysis of independent expenditures is available from the “data catalog” on our website – There is a file that contains specific independent expenditures, and another that provides candidate summaries for everyone who ran in 2009 or 2010. We also have a blog that tries to help with the details of the data –

  12. Norm Ornstein December 16, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

    John, you should add a focus on candidates’ psychology and behavior. By “flooding the zone” and running ads in far more districts than usual, the outside groups forced many candidates to raise more money than they would have otherwise, which had a “crowding out” effect on other candidates– they were often pursuing the same wealthier donors, who maxed out. And because the groups were often willing to pay absolute top dollar for their ads, it bumped candidates from the most desirable spots and made their messages less potent. More than that, as we look to the future, I can tell you from conversations with a number of incumbents up in 2012, including otherwise safe incumbents, that all now fear a two-front war– a candidate, often not to be deeply feared, and a third force parachuting in with millions to run negative ads. They will all spend far more time raising far more money preemptively, and that means more shakedowns of big donors and more implicit trading of favors for money– in other words, totally contrary to Anthony Kennedy’s naive assertion, a seriously corrupting effect from removing boundaries around independent spending

  13. LFC December 16, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Unlike the other people in this thread I’m not an expert on campaign finance and elections, but I’m glad Norman Ornstein made the above points.

    I also wonder whether it’s really possible to “remain neutral” about a decision like this and just present “what we do and don’t know about its impact” in a total normative vacuum. This is a decision, after all, that embraced a very distinctive (and completely wrong, imo) theory of the First Amendment, one that among other things completely ignored the First Amendment interests of listeners and focused exclusively on the First Amendment interests of speakers (defined to include corporations and unions), even though a long line of precedents establishes that listeners, not just speakers, have First Amendment rights. (You might not think that just from reading the text of the First Amendment, but that’s what many precedents say.)

    Prof. Sides must have a view about whether the CitUnited reading of the 1st Amendment is correct, and if I were him (technically, “if I were he” but it sounds affected) I would be up front and say: “I think the decision is wrong/right on the First Amendment. I’m not here to persuade you of that, but I wanted to get that out of the way before discussing the impact.” Would be a somewhat more straightforward way to proceed, imo. For what it’s worth.