Apparently, Citizens United Didn’t Ruin The Election After All

The impact of outside spending on the election turned out to be far less consequential than many had feared.

Practically since the day that the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United back in January 2009, we’ve been told by people on the left that it was going to ruin American democracy. The ability of outside groups to insert themselves in election campaigns with virtually unlimited amounts of cash, we were told, would pervert the system and allow “the rich“ to buy elections. SuperPACs, we were told, were going to be the method by which corporations and those evil Koch Brothers, who have donated more money to universities and the arts than they have to all their political causes but together, took control of the political process and drowned out the voice of “the people.” Of course, there seemed to be little complaint about the pro-Obama SuperPACs and where they were getting their money from, or the independent expenditures made by unions such as the SEIU during the course of the election. But, all of that is a battle for another day, or perhaps an entirely unnecessary battle, because it turns out all those independent expenditures didn’t have nearly the impact on the election that certain people feared:

Never before has so much political money been spent to achieve so little.

Record spending by independent groups, which in many ways defined how campaigns were waged this year, had no dis­cern­ible effect on the outcome of most races, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

A clutch of billionaires and privately held corporations fueled more than $1 billion in spending by super PACs and nonprofits, unleashing a wave of attack ads un­rivaled in U.S. history. Yet Republican groups, which dominated their opponents, failed to achieve their two overarching goals: unseating President Obama and returning the Senate to GOP control.

In the Senate, Republicans lost ground, after pouring well over $100 million in outside money into seven races that went to Democrats. In the presidential race, GOP nominee Mitt Romney nearly matched Obama with the help of outside money, yet he lost decisively in the end.

Even in the House, which remains comfortably in Republican hands, GOP money groups struck out repeatedly in individual races they targeted, according to the Post analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 24 of the most competitive House contests, Democratic candidates and their allies were outspent in the final months but pulled out victories anyway. That compares with eight competitive races in which Republicans were outspent and won.

Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and created a new class of wealthy political groups.

The money clearly did change the focus and tenor of many campaigns. Candidates up and down the ballot were forced to spend more time seeking donations, while political ads funded by outsiders gave a profoundly negative shine to many contests.

Wealthy donors were so central to Romney’s campaign that a swarm of private luxury jets caused a traffic jam at Boston’s airport Tuesday just before the nominee’s election-night party.

But conservative super PACs and secretive nonprofit groups — which spent up to $10 million a day on the presidential race alone — couldn’t move the needle far enough to prevail in almost any of the major races they targeted. Romney’s reliance on outside money also gave him less control over spending, while his campaign was plagued by high personnel costs and lavish consulting fees.

While the loss in the Presidential race is perhaps the biggest defeat for the the conservative SuperPACs, it gets even worse when you look at what happened in the Senate:

In the Senate, the conservative push was a resounding failure. Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other GOP-leaning groups spent at least $94 million targeting Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Timothy M. Kaine (Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), according to FEC data; all emerged victorious Tuesday.

“Our victory proves neither corporations nor billionaires can buy Montana,” Tester said after his race was declared on Wednesday.

The Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics, calculated Wednesday that two-thirds of the money spent by outside groups backed losing candidates. Success rates varied dramatically from group to group: American Crossroads and its nonprofit affiliate spent about 6 percent of their funds on winners, while the Service Employees International Union had a 70 percent victory rate, Sunlight found.

It’s worth mentioning, of course, that some of the candidate’s backed by these groups were flawed to say the least. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock both ended up shooting themselves in the foot by making comments about rape and abortion which, while they clearly represented their own beliefs, were seen by many people and even many Republicans as being stupid and offensive. No amount of outside spending was going to save either of those guys even if, as in the case of Missouri, the Democrat that they were running against entered the race with a job approval rating that made it seem as though victory was inevitable for whichever Republican ran against her. By a similar measure, it seems fairly clear that Josh Mandel in Ohio and Connie Mack in Florida were simply not up to the task of taking on relatively popular incumbent Senators. Beyond those mistakes, though, it seems rather clear that all that outside spending in Wisconsin, Virginia, North Dakota, Montana and elsewhere did next to nothing to move the needle in any of those races. In fact, if I were a billionaire who had been writing checks to Karl Rove’s group or any of the others, I’d be asking myself right now what the heck I had gotten for my money.

Several thoughts come to mind here.

First of all, this strikes me as fairly persuasive evidence that the fearmongering that we saw in the wake of Citizens United and the rise of the SuperPacs, which were actually made possible by FEC’ regulations in response to a completely different Court decision, was not surprisingly over-stated. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on the Presidential race as well as Senate and House races across the country and what, exactly, is there to show for it? If money can indeed buy elections as these critics were telling us, then why did all of these candidates lose? It’s possible that these SuperPACs played a role in the race by shifting the debate between the candidates from one issue to another, thus causing them to focus on things they might not have planned to. However, that’s far different from saying that these organizations, or the independent outside expenditures that Citizens United recognized as being a valid exercise of First Amendment rights “bought” the election. For those who would say that these outside expenditures are somehow detrimental to democracy, I would argue that the 2012 Election season stands as very strong evidence that their assertions were overblown and completely incorrect.

Second, this is pretty good news for free speech. Both sides had their arguments that they put forward, the people evaluated them, and they voted accordingly? The fact that some of the people speaking had a lot of money behind them quite clearly didn’t do anything to advance their merits of their arguments, or to make bad candidates look good, and it didn’t cause the race itself to veer off in a direction that it wouldn’t have gone otherwise. A group of people spent a lot of money to advance their political ideas but, in the end, they lost. Isn’t that how free speech is supposed to work?

Finally, as Ed Morrissey notes, our entire experience with SuperPACs and outside expenditures this year points out the absurdities of campaign donation limits to begin with. As the Post notes, the main thing that all these outside expenditures forced candidates to do is to engage in more fundraising to respond to attack ads from outside groups rather than retail campaigning. If we had a campaign finance system where there were no limits on the amount someone could donate to a candidate, combined with more rigorous and immediate disclosure requirements, then the candidates themselves would have been responsible for the message that was presented to the public. There might still be outside groups intent on presenting their own message, but they’d likely be far less well-funded than they were this year because most people would want to give their money directly to their candidate rather than to an organization with an agenda that may not be in sync with the candidate.

Even if we don’t go that far in revamping our campaign finance laws, though, it’s fairly clear from our experiences this cycle that Citizens United  and SuperPACs were not the boogeymen that some people feared that would be. For that reason alone, we should view with skepticism any proposal that would change the law as it is exists today in a manner that would restrict political speech.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    I will admit that money drove final results less than I expected, but I still think it is less visible how it drove the initial stages, the toeholds for candidates.

    Huntsman and Pawlenty are not mentioned in your review.

    To what extend would a billionaire fairy godmother have helped them?

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It turned out to be an excellent way to fleece billionaires. Karl Rove is the Nigerian e-mailer of the super rich.

    I’ll tell you something else this election proved: these guys didn’t get rich by being smart. They threw away a billion dollars and got nothing. So much for businessmen running things better than government. Had we given the billion dollars to the post office we’d at least have gotten some coupon mailers. If we’d given the Pentagon a billion dollars we’d have ourselves a sweet fighter jet.

    And chief among the not-so-smart businessmen is Mitt Romney who contrived to push money from his own campaign to the super PACs which then paid a non-discounted rate for media. At the same time he evidently bought last year’s data analysis app and never got the upgrade.

    The businessmen, you know, those guys who can all ‘balance a budget’ in their sleep? They just made complete asses of themselves and were played like rubes. Best of all? They got their asses kicked by a community organizer and a few nerds.

  3. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It has always been sweet sweet contradiction:

    “We will get out the vote … not like some ‘community organizer'”

  4. gVOR08 says:

    It does appear the big outside money groups did badly. This time. Failing to buy an election is a very expensive hobby, even by Sheldon Adelson’s standards. But actually buying an election could be hugely profitable. The question is: Will they decide this was a waste and pull back, or will they persist and maybe get better at it?

  5. Herb says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “It turned out to be an excellent way to fleece billionaires.”

    This time.

    I think next time those guys are gonna want some ROI, and they’ll consider at least some of the bill already paid.

  6. Geek, Esq. says:

    They didn’t succeed this time, in a nationalized presidential election race.

    But, that’s only because they were faced with a singularly effective financial and media-savvy organization in the Obama campaign.

    In off-year Congressional elections, in statewide elections, in local elections, its full effect has not yet been measured.

    The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson constitute a limitless, bottomless pool of money that can fuel these spending campaigns. It’s naive to think that next time they won’t be more effective.

  7. PJ says:

    I’ve said before that I believed that money wouldn’t have the impact on the Presidential election people believed, but that it more likely would on House elections.

    Thanks to gerrymandering, only 51 seats were competitive in the election.

    How much to buy those seats? $25 million? $50 million? $100 million? $200 million?

    It would be chump change for a couple of billionaires looking to make sure that Democrats will never get to control the House again.

  8. Nikki says:

    The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson constitute a limitless, bottomless pool of money that can fuel these spending campaigns. It’s naive to think that next time they won’t be more effective.

    Exactly. Just because they didn’t succeed this time doesn’t mean they won’t succeed the next time. No one should have such an out-sized voice in a democracy, especially in OUR democracy.

  9. Kit says:

    Somehow I cannot think that you would have been just as unimpressed had several of these candidates won. What proof, you could ask, is there that this extra money turned the tides? Difficult to say, but everyone seems to agree that money has supreme importance. Why do businessmen give it? Why do so many politicians spend so much of their time raising money? Even if the money helps not in the least, those two parties feel that it does and will act accordingly.

    Even if that PAC money just bought a whole load of stupid this cycle, there is nothing to say that it need always be that way. How should we feel about that? It makes me uneasy, but I’ll stay open minded until someone can really dig into the data and find real answers. Until then, I hope this topic comes up from time to time now that passions have cooled–it’s important.

  10. Brett says:

    Part of the problem is that the SuperPACs love dumping money into expensive television ads, even though the evidence that they work is pretty thin. They’d be better off pouring money into GOTV efforts in conservative parts of swing states, but that’s not as flashy, and it requires hiring people to run a ground game as well.

  11. Woody says:

    Of course they’ll improve – there’s no way the GOP doesn’t learn from an expectations error this public (see Michael Scherer at Time for this).

    I’ve always believed Citizens United won’t doom democracy from the top downward — but it might going upward. A motivated billionaire will probably decide to create a personal fiefdom by blanketing a locality (school board / city council / mayor or city manager / county offices) and advancing up to state level.

  12. David M says:

    I think Citizens United had an incredibly negative effect on this election, regardless of the outcomes. The fact that they haven’t figured out how to use the money effectively shouldn’t make the prospect of single individuals giving officials and parties million dollar bribes donations any less dangerous to our country.

  13. Rob in CT says:

    I really don’t like the reasoning that led to our current situation (not just citizens united in the particular). However, things were already terribly screwed up prior to CU, so yeah, CU didn’t suddenly wreck things. Ok, sure.

    Like some the others, I will continue to worry.

    Thankfully, I do think TV advertising quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns. But it sure can help with the basic stuff you need – getting the candidate’s name out and such.

    Much was made of Linda McMahon losing in CT. I had my laugh too. But you know what? Linda picked one of the bluest states in the nation. CT went for Obama by 18 points. Eighteen points.

    It looks like Murphy won by 12. I’d argue that neither Murphy nor McMahon were especially great candidates, so I think that’s a wash. What’s left is that McMahon out-performed Romney by 6 points. I know I can’t just say the money was worth 6 points. However, in a closer race? Surely it helps.

    And this cuts both ways, as we all know. The Dems aren’t paupers.

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, you could see this one coming from a billion miles away. The left is not exactly sentient much less truly learned in the law and public policy. But obviously if Obama had lost we’d be hearing all about Citizen United, in addition of course to voter suppression, voting machines, etc. Win or lose the left always has the bases covered. Dissonantly.

  15. pylon says:

    The analysis is only complete if you consider how Romney and the downticket candidates would have done without such funding.

    Perhaps Romney would not have made this as close as it was, popular vote-wise.

  16. marginoerra says:

    It’s always about the product, boys & girls…always about the product. Apple spends millions to market the iPhone. Adelson & the Koch Boys spend millions to market Mitt.

    See the difference???

  17. Mr. Replica says:


    See the difference???

    Americans only want one talking, over-hyped, overpriced piece of technology in their lives?

  18. Mr. Replica says:

    While this election may not have come down the massive amounts of money being spent thanks to the CU ruling, or the fact that CU allowed business owners to “advise” their workers on who to vote for. That doesn’t mean that in the next election things will remain the same. I can only hope that this election is start of a trend, and that CU doesn’t in fact make things worse down the line. But, I am not optimistic.

    However, this doesn’t change my opinion of money in politics. Especially special interests that are able to donate gargantuan amounts of money to certain parties and candidates expecting to be given privileges and considerations in return. Politicians should not be beholden to certain people or groups, they should be beholden to every American in which their governing affects.
    I do not think anyone here could tell me in all honestly that if Mitt was elected and Sheldon Adelson called in a favor, that Mitt would say no. Especially if he wanted to run for a second term. The Adelson family donated over 50 million dollars to Romney and republicans. That would have given him a lot of clout in that administration.
    That’s not to say that Obama does not have his own whales, I just gave the Romney/Adelson reference because I knew that off the top of my head.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    The left is not exactly sentient? The left just bent the right over and yelled “Squeal like a pig.”

    You’re on the dumb team. And well-placed.

  20. J-Dub says:

    Check Karl Rove’s hands next week and see if he still has all his fingers.

  21. sam says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    The left is not exactly sentient much less truly learned in the law and public policy.

    Jesus, just about the time I’ve convinced myself that you’ve reached the limit of dumbf υckery, you prove me wrong.

  22. KariQ says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    In off-year Congressional elections, in statewide elections, in local elections, its full effect has not yet been measured.

    I think this is exactly on point. I never really worried about the presidential election, and statewide elections are also going to be hard to swing based on dollars, except in relatively rare cases. There’s too much free media, too much attention paid to these races, and the candidates will usually be well known enough for outside spending to have limited impact.

    The real challenge is at the Congressional, state legislature, and even smaller election level. How much money spent wisely would it take to swing a couple of city council races? How much would those new council members owe to the person who financed that campaign? These are the issues that are worrisome.

  23. Liz says:

    I think the m/billionaires got something for their money: Obama 2012. Had Romney not had to contend with such a drawn out primary and respond to some of the more extreme elements of the party, he may not have had to take such extreme positions on immigration or women’s reproductive health. It’s entirely possible that without Adelson & his Citizens United-loving friends, Romney may have had enough support from Latinos and women to start measuring the drapes this week.

  24. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Brett: “…it requires hiring people…”

    I think you’ve hit on it. Hiring people, even temporary people, is expensive. Probably more so than media buys.

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if these guys discovered that they couldn’t buy the election because they were too cheap to hire good workers?

  25. mattb says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    In off-year Congressional elections, in statewide elections, in local elections, its full effect has not yet been measured.

    Anecdotally, here in the greater Rochester NY Area, SuperPac ads have actually been credited with helping defeat the Republican Challenger that they were supporting.

    We were inundated with direct mail negative attack ads produced by an out-of-state SuperPac backing his run. And my understanding was that most people just assumed those adverts came from the Hanna campaign, helping make his campaign appear more negative than it was.

    Plus, for us non-swing-state New Yorkers, it was more election related material than we were used to getting. So I suspect that it produced some additional negative associations with Hanna.

  26. mattb says:


    They’d be better off pouring money into GOTV efforts in conservative parts of swing states, but that’s not as flashy, and it requires hiring people to run a ground game as well.

    Plus it seems to me that any serious GoTV efforts might get rather dicey for maintaining the SuperPac’s special organization status.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    I love …. love love love …. the fact that Rove raised over $350M for his PAC and he has so demand little to show for it. I can’t wait until he runs his shake down game on those guys for the 2014 mid-term elections.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    The left is not exactly sentient much less truly learned in the law and public policy.

    Well, considering what you have posted on this blog, neither are you…you really should seek some professional help for that whole projection thing…

  29. Midwestern Dad says:

    I heard locally that Walsh outspending Tammy Duckworth 12 to one or at least super pacs did. She won with about 55% of the vote. What could happen in a close election? Just because a disease doesn’t kill you; it can still be bad and cause harm.