The legacy of Citizens United: A conversation with Charlie Cook – Grid News

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The legacy of Citizens United: A conversation with Charlie Cook

Saturday marks the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision for Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The decision changed the way political campaigns function, with unlimited amounts of money now available. In the 13 years since the decision was passed, campaigns and candidates have developed new ways to compete in a political landscape where massive amounts of money are required for entry.

If you’re rusty on the specifics of the case, here’s the SparkNotes version of events:

Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, wanted to air “Hillary: The Movie,” a film about the prospective presidential candidate and Senator Hillary Clinton. The Federal Election Commission said nope, arguing the film was essentially negative press and violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

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The group challenged the decision and, in the process, 100 years of campaign finance rules.

The outcome? Justice Anthony Kennedy penned the Court’s majority opinion that reasoned limiting independent expenditures from corporations, labor unions and other groups violated the First Amendment (the right to free speech).

Following that decision, the sky’s the limit on how much outside groups can spend on elections. And spend they have. In the midterm elections alone, outside spending for federal elections was upwards of 2 billion dollars.

While it doesn’t look like the Citizens United decision will be repealed any time soon, that hasn’t stopped critics from crying foul. Lawmakers have tried to pass measures to address the influx of big money in politics and the lack of transparency that sometimes goes along with it.

Grid got on the phone with Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, to discuss how the impact of Citizens United reverberates (and doesn’t) today.

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Here’s are the key takeaways from that conversation:

Citizens United, in some ways, “democratized” campaign finance

When asked how Citizens United changed political spending, Cook started off by making one thing clear: “Personally, I think it was a terrible decision that makes it extremely difficult to effectively regulate campaign money.”

When it was passed in 2010, the widespread concern was that it would allow unions and corporations to dump funding into campaigns. But, he said, “that really hasn’t happened much.”

“When you’re talking about publicly traded companies, for example, their stockholders tend to take a somewhat dim view of their money being spent on behalf of politicians,” Cook continued. And when it comes to unions, where leadership is often Democratic, a significant portion of their members are Trump supporters. “So, they obviously can’t get away with doing this much.”

When he started his newsletter back in 1984, money, whether from corporations, trade associations or labor unions, was a big piece of campaign finance, he remembers. “Now it’s just a tiny fraction.”

Where Citizens United has had a huge impact on elections spending, though, is how wealthy individuals make their donations. Those big donations (such as from your typical $500k donor) or mid-level donations (think the $200-250k range) just aren’t as common anymore. “That’s a lot lower share than it used to be of the money going to House and Senate campaigns,” he said.

On the phone, Cook suggested that instead what’s happening is “a sort of democratization of campaign finance.”

How? The internet, of course. “Right now, big money comes in small denominations — it’s the people that can raise money on the internet.” Usually, he said, it’s from an email advertising campaign.

“The online fundraising is an enormous amount of it and — in key races, not necessarily all races — it’d be interesting to go back and look at what proportion of their money came from face-to-face fundraising, either phone calls from the candidate or face-to-face fundraising events,” he said. “I think that’s shrunk down enormously.”

We’re talking about “dark money” the wrong way

One thing Cook doesn’t do? Throw around the term “dark money.” “There’s soft money and hard money and a few gradations in between,” he said. “Dark money is unregulated, often unreported money spent on behalf of the other.”


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The term is basically a politicized one parties hurl at each other. You’ll never hear Democrats or Republicans talking about their own dark money, he explained. “‘Dark’ is the other side’s money,” he said. “It’s completely hypocritical.”

It follows, then, that campaigns rely on outside organizations — including those funded by “dark” money — for attack ads while keeping their own hands clean.

Both sides of the aisle have adapted to the post-Citizens United world

Campaigns everywhere have used the impacts of Citizens United to their advantage. Whether unlimited spending benefits one side or the other depends on the election cycle. “In this particular midterm election, in key races, Democrats outspent Republicans by a good margin, but there’ve certainly been other cycles when it was the other way around,” Cook said.

This, in turn, influences, for instance, how much money a candidate has for broadcast ads. In the Senate races this year, Democrats had more money channeled through the Senate candidate campaigns, which get charged lower rates for ads than outside groups.

A very large share of the Republican Senate money came from super PACs, which don’t receive these same discount advantages.

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The result? Republican Senate races were paying two, three, four — even 10 — times more than what the Democrats paid for a similar 30-second ad.

“Journalists grossly exaggerate the impact of money in politics.”

A few decades ago, journalists became spellbound by the campaign money story. “They all sort of bought into money is determinative in races,” Cook said.

In reality, it doesn’t always play out that way. Every cycle, he said, there are plenty of races where a candidate with an enormous amount of money loses anyway.

“If a candidate’s not very good or a campaign’s not very good, then they could have all the money in the world, and it wouldn’t make that much difference,” he said. “There is a law of diminishing returns on campaign spending.”

Cook argued that a few things have far greater impact than that Court decision: cable television, gerrymandering, the internet and social media, to name a few.

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“That’s not to say it wasn’t a big deal and hasn’t had an impact,” he said, “but that there are lots of other things that are really, really important.”

Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.