The ensuing four years have seen significant changes to the way campaigns are funded, and an increase in influence for big money donors, as the independent political spending allowed by the court exploded. As these groups have spent more money, the sources of a large portion of their spending have gone undisclosed.
Below are seven charts to help you understand the impact of the Citizens United ruling as it reaches its fourth year:
Source: Center for Responsive Politics.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 1 percent of super PAC donors accounted for 68 percent of all contributions made to super PACs in the 2012 election, the first full election cycle following the ruling.
These donors were led by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his family, who combined to give more than $93 million to super PACs. The super PAC, created following both the Citizens United and the related SpeechNow.org decisions, became the primary vehicle for independent spending for the wealthy. While these groups are required to disclose their spending, they are also allowed to spend all of their funds on electoral efforts, unlike nonprofit organizations. But more on that later.
The top 1 percent of super PAC donors reads like the Forbes 400 or a guest list at Davos. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg operates his very own super PAC. The libertarian venture capitalist billionaire Peter Thiel became the largest donor to the Club for Growth’s super PAC as it worked to defeat establishment Republicans in primary campaigns. And billionaire hedge funders James Simons, Robert Mercer, Paul Singer and Ken Griffin all gave millions.
Billionaires now have an easy outlet for their entrepreneurial endeavors in politics. The only question is whether they want their names on a plaque — in this case, a disclosed FEC report — or if they would rather remain anonymous.
Of course, it isn’t so simple. The court’s ruling opened the door for nonprofit corporations, whether they are funded by corporations or not, to spend unlimited amounts on independent campaign activity so long as they remain in bounds of the lax tax laws that govern them. These tax laws do not require the disclosure of nonprofit donors. In fact, prior court rulings and Federal Election Commission legal interpretations had protected nonprofits from donor disclosure.
Nonprofits are not ideal for individuals or corporations who want to spend money on independent political activity, due to tax laws requiring these groups to spend a majority of their time outside of politics. But the donor anonymity they are guaranteed can make nonprofits worth the investment. The billionaire Koch brothers and their donor collective used a labyrinthine network of nonprofit groups to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into both the 2010 and 2012 elections.
One of the most obvious examples of donors’ desire for anonymity comes in the form of the Crossroads groups founded by Karl Rove. There is American Crossroads, the super PAC that discloses its donors, and there is Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit that does not. As evidenced in the chart below, donors have chosen anonymity at a rate of two-to-one since the groups were founded in 2010.
Source: Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service.
Donors Choose Dark Money Over Disclosure
- American Crossroads: $144,047,997
- Crossroads GPS: $256,547,160
More Money Than Candidates
In the 2012 election, independent groups spent more money than the actual candidates in three general election Senate races. That’s right — in Indiana, Virginia and Wisconsin, the major party candidates in the general election were outspent by independent groups.
That same dynamic played out in at least six House races in 2012. In California’s 35th District, independent groups — and really, just one independent group — spent two times as much as the candidates. In this race between two Democrats, Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC intervened with $3.3 million as the billionaire mayor sought to defeat the pro-gun incumbent Rep. Joe Baca (D). And he did: Bloomberg’s super PAC spending is credited with helping the heavily underfunded Gloria Negrete McLeod defeat Baca.
Shattered Television Advertising Records
Source: Wesleyan Media Project. Numbers are based on data released in the paper titled, “Negative, Angry, and Ubiquitous: Political Advertising in 2012.”
Presidential Television Advertising Surged Post-Citizens United
- 2004: 753,000
- 2008: 796,000
- 2012: 1,140,000
The Wesleyan Media Project tracked television advertising in the 2012 election and found that advertising in the presidential campaign shattered previous records for money spent and advertising volume.
The number of television advertisements in the presidential general election jumped from approximately 753,000 in 2004 to approximately 1.14 million in 2012. While the decision by both President Barack Obama and also GOP nominee Mitt Romney to forgo public funding accounts for some of the increase, the rise of independent spending also played a major role.