Remember all the hysteria about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, in which politicians fretted that the wealthy would be able to buy elections through unlimited outside-group spending? This election cycle provided a very good test for that doom-and-gloom scenario. Over a billion dollars got dropped into this election cycle from outside groups on both sides, running ads and campaigning, usually against their foe more than for their own candidate. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney embraced the outside group model and relied on their spending at strategic moments.
Did that pervert the election? Not really, according to a new analysis by the Washington Post. In fact, it didn’t have much impact at all, which turned out to be bad news for Republicans:
Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no discernible effect on the outcome of most races, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
A clutch of billionaires and privately held corporations fueled more than $1 billion in spending by super PACs and nonprofits, unleashing a wave of attack ads unrivaled in U.S. history. Yet Republican groups, which dominated their opponents, failed to achieve their two overarching goals: unseating President Obama and returning the Senate to GOP control.
In the Senate, Republicans lost ground, after pouring well over $100 million in outside money into seven races that went to Democrats. In the presidential race, GOP nominee Mitt Romney nearly matched Obama with the help of outside money, yet he lost decisively in the end.
Even in the House, which remains comfortably in Republican hands, GOP money groups struck out repeatedly in individual races they targeted, according to the Post analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 24 of the most competitive House contests, Democratic candidates and their allies were outspent in the final months but pulled out victories anyway. That compares with eight competitive races in which Republicans were outspent and won.
Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and created a new class of wealthy political groups.
On one hand, this is pretty good news for free speech — and, if one thinks about, redistributionism. Obama wants to give the wealthy a haircut in order to improve the economy? Let’s have elections every six months. I’d bet that the one billion spent in this election cycle created more jobs per dollar than the Obama stimulus of 2009, and probably longer-lasting jobs, too.
However, all this does is prove the silliness of campaign-finance restrictions, on top of the regulation of political speech it represents. The Post goes on to note, correctly, that most of this money on both sides only served to make races more negative, and forced candidates to do a lot more fundraising for their own coffers to fight back against attack ads. That’s an almost comical demonstration of the absurdity of donation limits.
Had those limits been replaced with full and immediate disclosure requirements, which the Internet makes entirely possible, and tax deductions eliminated for all outside groups (and even the candidates and political parties), then those donors would have given the donations directly to the candidate and/or party. That would have made the candidates and parties directly responsible for their own messaging, which would have limited the nonsense attacks during the campaign.
People could still form third-party groups if they desired, of course, but as this election shows, giving the money directly to the candidate would be much more efficient. Some, like the Kochs, fund conservative groups already in order to fuel grassroots activism, and that would continue to be the case, but the rest of the nonsense would disappear quickly. No one appreciates efficiency in the use of capital more than the people who created it in the first place.
Instead of undoing Citizens United, let’s undo campaign finance reform and return responsibility for campaign messaging to the candidates and their parties instead.