Home > A1, Learning, Mr. O. Recommends > It’s all About the Money- Citizens United and its Impact on Elections

It’s all About the Money- Citizens United and its Impact on Elections

The Citizens United decision broke new ground in the realm of campaign finance. Gone were the restrictions on corporate political speech (as long as they didn’t donate funds directly) and vague disclosure laws.

The landmark 5-4 decision opened up the election process to an influx of funds the likes of which the political world has never seen. The question becomes whether or not that flood of money negatively impacts the election process.

In class we were asked to not only consider that central question, but dig a little deeper into the history of campaign finance.

Before Citizens United, campaign finance reform underwent a few drastic and landmark changes. Daniel M. Shea explains that the most significant judicial decision impacting campaign finance in the modern era is Buckley v. Valeo, in which the court ruled that money is akin to speech and is protected but the amount of money that can be directly given to a candidate is limited. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (or BCRA) went further and forced candidates to gather funds from an increased number of small donors by banning “soft money” contributions.


McCain (R-AZ), key proponent of BCRA (NYSIAF)

Citizens United took things a step further after the huge uptick in campaign spending during the 2008 election cycle. The case dealt with a specific clause of BCRA that “outlawed explicit campaigning by nonpartisan groups within 30 days of a general election and 60 days prior to a primary” and was elevated to the supreme court after Citizens United, a non-profit organization, tried to air a movie that was highly critical of Hillary Clinton.The result changed the nature of elections forever. By uprooting the precedent set for campaign finance restrictions, Citizens United v. FEC effectively injected more money into politics.

Allegations that said funding is harmful have been prominent. The preponderance of negative ads funded by Super PAC’s are disparaged and have left many worrying about the effect that money can have on the campaign system. Fortunately, I strongly believe that the potential benefits of increased funding far outweigh the pitfalls.

Perhaps the largest benefit of an increase in funding due to citizens united is the greater competition we see in the election process.

Before Citizens United, incumbents had a huge advantage in the election process. James Campbell, in a study from the State University of New York at Buffalo, analyzed 100 years of elections and came to the conclusion that incumbents have an edge for a couple of reasons.

  1. Incumbents have access to more funds, usually outspending their opponents by 3:1
  2. They have name-brand recognition after having held office

Now, after the Citizens United ruling, competition can come to the forefront because the incumbent advantages are significantly degraded nullified. Bradley Smith of US News explains that “In 2010 Democratic candidates and party committees outspent Republicans by approximately $200 million, but super PACs offset approximately $100 million of that.” Super PAC’s disproportionately support challengers and at the very least force incumbents to campaign hard to retain their spot.


Herman Cain- chairman of Godfather’s Pizza and primary candidate (CSM)

The Republican presidential primary is a great example of this increase in competition. Usually, even the most competitive primary elections don’t have multiple candidates receive large amounts of media attention. The 2008 democratic primary was the most publicized in the pre-Citizens United era, and even there, the candidates were whittled down to two almost immediately. However, this election cycle, it seemed as though a new candidate was leading the Republican primary race each week. The only reason we knew who Herman Cain was, or the reason that Gingrich was able to break in late and challenge Romney is because inflows of funding made the process more competitive than it would have been otherwise.Ultimately, the passage of Citizens United has added money into elections. Although that addition is hotly debated, its ability to raise the competitive nature of elections creates a net increase in the information for American voters and stimulates interest to get people involved in elections.

  1. March 1, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Well done, Sahil – a most thoughtful and well-written post!

    I hear you on 2 key points: 1) creating “a net increase in the information” for voters and 2) stimulating “interest to get people involved.” I’m curious about two questions regarding involvement: is it possible that having more money creates unfair access for some individuals (or groups) to get involved in ways that are not available for too many citizens? Can having more money create ‘wins’ for policies that would not ‘win’ if they were subject to competition and debate on equal footing in the marketplace of ideas? Again, quite thoughtful… great job!

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