Citizens United v. Our Democracy
In 2016, Secretary Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, was thought to wield specific political advantages over her Republican opponent Donald Trump. Secretary Clinton had the experience, she was more knowledgeable than Mr. Trump was in regards to the issues being discussed, some said she was more articulate, and Secretary Clinton raised a lot more money. Typically, a candidate’s advantage in campaign fundraising was always an indicator that they had more support from more people, they had more exposure, and had more power to sway the undecided and independent voters. In the 2016 election, we learned that this is not always the case. Super PACs do not have complete sway power over the voters, but they do greatly influence the politicians in office.
In this day and age, campaign donations do not directly go to the campaign and candidate themselves. Since Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, the floodgates opened and soft money barreled into our elections. Super PACs, through independent expenditures, send money towards media buys in hopes of advancing their candidate of choice or encouraging the public not to vote for another candidate. Since the Citizens United decision was held, we saw dramatic increases in independent expenditure spending and independent expenditure spending posited as a significant and unfair game changer in elections, but Super PACs are not having the affect many people thought they would have. We are now entering an era where independent expenditures by Super PACs only have a large impact over politicians and are not reflective of the people.
Secretary Clinton raised over $563 million dollars and independent expenditures spent over $231 million in support of her. Mr. Trump raised a little over $333 million, most of which ($66 million) was his own money, and he received $75.2 million from independent expenditures. The significant amount of money flowing into Secretary Clinton's campaign coffers led political experts to come to the conclusion that she would win. However, Donald Trump beat Secretary Clinton - even taking states that historically supported democratic presidential candidates.
Super PACs funnel an exorbitant amount of money into political campaigns in order to sponsor and advocate for and against specific candidates. While ads and media buys by independent expenditures may have some sway on the undecided and in swing states, Super PACs and their outreach in campaigns are not the ultimate decider in elections. President Trump and his campaign proves this. He won the election, yet independent expenditure spending for Secretary Clinton spent was $155,849,637 more than it was for President Trump. However, just because Super PACs aren’t the ultimate decider in elections doesn’t mean they do not have a great impact on our government. What we are seeing is Super PACs becoming the deciders in how the politician they are supporting will view particular issues.
When a politician receives most of their support from Super PACS, either directly or indirectly, they are going to be likely to view issues in the eyes of the Super PACs regardless of their constituents’ views. The issue of gun control exemplifies how Super PACs shape politicians' views on issues. According to a Gallup Poll taken in October 2017, 60% of people want stricter gun control laws. This poll also revealed that 96% of people asked support background checks - with 86% saying they support a universal system, 75% support a 30 day waiting period when purchasing a weapon, and 70% of people polled would support privately-owned guns to be registered with the police. With all this information and other information from other polling organizations that reflect similar results, politicians would be jumping at the chance to put their name on a gun control bill or that the President would pass an executive order reflecting what the people want - but that is not what we are seeing.
Let’s look at everyone’s favorite lobbying group, the National Rifle Association. The NRA goes above and beyond, shelling out an exorbitant amount of money to defend the right to bear arms. The NRA's influence is felt not only through campaign contributions, but also through millions of dollars in off-the-books spending on issue ads. Lobbying expenditures for the National Rifle Association regularly exceed $1.5 million and increased from $3.2 million in 2016 to more than $5.1 million in 2017 and 2018. The organization's lobbyists frequently try to exert their influence over government agencies including members of Congress and they are consistently successful in doing so. In just 2018, the NRA lobbied for and against 283 bills concerning gun laws. Politicians, particularly Republicans in regards to this issue, are doing everything in their power to avoid the issue or appease public opinion by agreeing to small things because the money they receive through ad buys and media wants them to keep an anti-gun control stance.
The same can be said with Democrats as well, who receive a lot of support from Super PACs, like Priorities USA. In the 2016 election, Priorities USA acted as if they were Secretary Clinton’s actual campaigning team and they did more campaigning in states, like Pennsylvania, than Secretary Clinton did herself. Priorities USA actually broke fundraising records, raising over $175 million dollars in the 2016 election cycle. Priorities USA targeted swing states and battleground states, drafting specific pro-Clinton messages that would appeal to each state’s populations and needs. In a way this Super PAC did a better job than the Democratic Party did, yet it still didn’t work. States that Priorities USA targeted with big media buys didn’t swing in Clinton’s favor, contributing to her overall loss. A majority of people in states like Michigan, Florida, and Ohio - where a lot of those ads aired - voted for President Trump, clearly indicating that Super PACs’ ads did not do much to sway the voters. People in these states for the most part wanted to hear from the politician who was running for office. While voters wanted to hear from Secretary Clinton that she would meet their needs, it is possible that they didn’t respond well to hearing about it from an ad paid for by a Super PAC that wasn’t directly connected to Secretary Clinton herself.
The Center for Responsive Politics predicted that over $5.2 billion would be spent on the 2018 midterm elections, making it the most expensive midterm election ever by a wide margin. More than $4.7 billion was already spent by candidates, political parties and other groups such as PACs, super PACs and nonprofits a week before this year’s midterm elections. Prior to this election cycle, no midterm election had surpassed more than $4.2 billion in spending when adjusted for inflation. Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, postulates that “the significance of this election is clear. But whether it’s a blue wave or a red wave, one thing is certain: A wave of money is surging toward Election Day, much of it coming from the wealthiest donors targeting this year’s most competitive races.” Now that the midterms are over, the Center for Responsive Politics estimated that at least $5.1 billion was spent on this year’s midterm.
Established politicians align their views to those of Super PACs in order to receive their money and get away with it because they carry the incumbency advantage over opponents who barely have any visibility due to a lack of support from financially powerful Super PACs. It is too soon to see what kind of long term effect the 2016 election will have on the way politics is run in the country and how elections will function in the months and years to come. One thing, however, is clear. Super PACs do not have the sway many people believe they do. They are not representative of the population. Candidates’ ability to receive the benefit of ‘free media’ worth millions of dollars from independent expenditures does not mean they have the public support necessary to win an election. Voters have the power to control the election and it is politicians who have become hypnotized by Super PACs and what they believe those PACs can give them.