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How Citizens United Impacts the 2016 U.S. Elections

By 3p Contributor

By Alex Newman

It has been six years since five Supreme Court justices ruled that nonprofit corporations had the right to spend huge amounts of money through funding Super PACs in the infamous Citizens United decision. It is hardly a coincidence that, since the decision, Republicans and their corporate allies gained control of state and local offices throughout the United States, where campaign spending becomes more important.

But what has changed? How has campaign spending changed over the past six years, whether through federal campaign contributions or through Super PACs? And what sort of effect will it have on the current presidential election?

Tracking the rise of money in politics

It should be remembered that spending for political campaigns and causes is not necessarily a bad thing. Witness how the Bernie Sanders campaign mobilized millions of young voters to donate to his cause. If that clean money -- along with the legion of Bernie supporters -- can stay mobilized and promote progressive causes in the future, then Bernie’s campaign is a success even if he may not necessarily become president.

But the rise of Super PACS creates a new monstrosity. In the 2000 presidential election, outside groups spent just $51 million in what was one of the closest and most pivotal elections in most of our lifetimes. In 2012, Super PACs spent $609 million. And while the 2016 general election campaign has not even begun, Super PACs have already raised $710 million and spent $301 million, according to Open Secrets.

So, who are the prime beneficiaries of this incredible largess? Out of that $301 million, about $270 million went to conservative organizations. Two Super PACs, Right to Rise USA and Conservative Solutions PAC, each spent more money than all the Super PAC money used for the Democratic candidates combined.

Now, this does not mean that the Republicans are absolutely swamping the Democrats with a tidal wave of money. The Clinton and Sanders campaign committees have each raised more than twice the candidate committee money of any GOP candidate, though that may be disfigured by how many more GOP candidates ran in the primary.

But what does matter is that political campaigns are now stuck in a financial arms race without end. At the time, even campaign spending in 2000 was perceived as large compared to the almost total lack of campaign spending in elections in the 1960s and 1970s, and even those totals are minuscule compared to the money flung about today.

Does money matter?

All of these aforementioned numbers show how much campaign finance spending has increased. So, the so-called “free speech” backers and their corporate allies have switched to a different argument. The new argument is that all that money does not matter.

The common narrative being used is to point out the GOP primary. After all, the aforementioned Right to Rise USA and Conservative Solutions PAC respectively helped the Bush and Rubio campaigns. Meanwhile, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump is largely self-financed, as Open Secrets shows that 75 percent of his campaign spending comes out of his own pocket, with the rest coming from individual contributions. And Trump spent far less than Bush and Rubio. If Super PACs are so all powerful, the argument goes, why didn’t Bush or Rubio win instead of Trump?

To begin with, this argument defies common sense. Do you honestly think that the Koch brothers and Shelden Adelson just donate their money out of the good of their hearts? They and other groups donate because they know they can get something in return, namely political favors of some kind. Even if some rich men donate because they believe in their political cause so badly, that does not exclude the vast percentage of those who donate to curry benefits from Washington.

And away from that, the simple fact is that the candidate who raises the most money is the one who wins most of the time. Congressmen know this, which is why Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) said he was told he needed to raise $18,000 per day. Jolly, one of the representatives of the most powerful nation on Earth, was reduced to a glorified telemarketer -- calling rich people according to a script and begging for donations.

If money really didn’t matter in politics, one would think that Mr. Jolly would not need to do all of this and could instead focus on actually serving his constituents.  But the fact that he and the Republican Party go to such lengths show that, whatever those willing to defend the system may cry, money matters to the party leadership more than votes.

The Citizens United decision is a disaster for the United States, as it has turned elections into nothing more than a financial arms race where the candidate who raises the most money wins. Until real change is implemented to strike down the decision and destroy Super PACs, it is troublesome to suggest true democracy exists in this country.

Image credit: Flickr/United for the People Georgia

Alex Newman is a U.K.-based journalist and blogger who has a deep interest in the intersection between big data, statistics and the news. He writes about politics and finance and the reach of big business.

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