Outside spending plays a huge role in American politics. Just look at the recent Senate race in New Jersey: Cory Booker led his Republican opponent Steve Lonegan by a long shot in terms of outside spending, and went on to win the election.
First, what exactly did the Citizens United decision do? Basically, it equated spending on political campaigns with free speech. An important detail is that it did this not just for individuals, but also for corporations and labor unions. As a result, it basically stated that the government couldn’t impose contribution limits on donors to independent political action committees (PACs).
A person, corporation, or union can contribute to a PAC. The PAC can then contribute an unlimited amount of money to a candidate. Similar organizations, called Super PACs, can likewise raise unlimited funds but cannot contribute directly to political candidates.
The Supreme Court’s understanding of potential corruption in this case is too simplistic. Just because money paid to a PAC or Super PAC does not exchange hands directly between a donor and a candidate does not mean that money donated to PACs or Super PACs cannot influence a candidate’s behavior once elected. These organizations are generally focused on a set of policy objectives, and as they become more and more integrated into the campaign process, the policy preferences of a very small group of donors can gain outsized importance for a politician.
Just how small are these groups of donors? Well, the top 32 Super PAC donors in the 2012 election, who gave an average of $9.9 million each, matched all of the money raised by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney from small donors who gave less than $200. That’s 32 people matching the donations of over 3.7 million others.
In 2011, 93% of Super PAC contributions were donations of $10,000 or more. 15 donors, who gave at least $1 million each, made up a third of Super PAC contributions.
With increasingly polarized political campaigns, the prospect of dissatisfied members of a Super PAC backing a primary challenger in the next election can pose a serious problem for an incumbent. And that can cause them to put the interests of a tiny fraction of the population above policies that make more sense for a much broader segment of the population. It creates a system that undermines the basic principle of popular sovereignty: rule by the will of the people.
In 2012, both Montana and Colorado (the first went Republican in the election, the second Democrat) passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. This is an issue that affects people across party lines, and one that could get worse when the Supreme Court rules on another campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Committee, which examines the cap on the number of campaigns to which an individual can donate.