Friday, October 16, 2015

The Real Effect of Citizens United on the GOP (updated)

Regular readers might have already figured out that I am extremely skeptical of the conventional wisdom that is currently embraced by many people about the effects of the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United. It has certainly changed things. But not always in the way we've been led to believe. Here are some of the things I'm paying attention to in terms of how it's impacting the 2016 presidential race.

Insurgent Candidates

What we saw happen in the 2012 Republican presidential primary is that several insurgent candidates were able to hang on longer than they would have otherwise because of funding from their big superpac donors (i.e., Newt Gingrich). This is at least one of the reasons why 17 candidates threw their hat in the ring this time around.

A Weakened RNC

RNC Chair Reince Priebus has tried his best to reign in the extremism currently gripping the Republican Party. But because candidates no longer need the Party establishment to survive (see above), he's pretty much been neutered. The Koch brothers are even threatening to set up their own "shadow party" when it comes to some of the functions normally carried out by the RNC.

SuperPacs Can't Replace Hard Money

While donors can make unlimited contributions to superpacs, they are limited to $2,700 for a candidate's campaign. As we saw with Scott Walker when he dropped out of the race, his superpac still had approximately $20 million in the bank. But he wasn't raising much of anything when it comes to the hard money candidates need from donors to operate their basic campaign functions.

We're now hearing some of the same issues with Jeb Bush's campaign - even though his superpacs are likely sitting on something like $100 million. Jeb might be running into the same problem Hillary Clinton faced in her primary against Barack Obama. Once a donor has given the limit to the campaign, they can't give again until after the convention (when they can give another $2,700). Based on the latest fundraising report, Jeb is only getting 5% of his campaign cash from small donations. So I suspect that a lot of his supporters have already maxed out. If he can't widen his donor base, he'll continue to be in trouble.

What Can All That Superpac Money Buy?

The traditional view is that superpacs are all about buying expensive air time for TV ads. But we're seeing more and more reports indicating that those ads aren't making any difference. And yet, Republicans continue to invest...big time.

The question becomes, if not TV ads, what do you do with all that superpac money? Some candidates, like Carly Fiorina, are experimenting with "creative" ways to get around the laws about campaigns not coordinating with superpacs. I'll be watching to see, not only how far Republicans are willing to push those limits, but how successful the strategies will be.

Overall, it's beginning to look like Citizens United has had a pretty de-stabilizing impact on the Republican Party. There are plenty of places to point when looking for the source of the chaos they're currently experiencing. But I think we miss a big one if we don't consider the impact of this Supreme Court decision that everyone assumed would simply be a windfall for them.

UPDATE: It's interesting to note that Rachel Maddow is one of the few people in the media who are just beginning to ask some of these questions.


  1. Ironically, Citizens United may have also helped the Democrats since it allows unions to now spend nearly unlimited money on political campaigns.

    There have always been elite sugar daddies in the Republican party (and the Democrats to a lesser extent) who think they understand politics better then they actually do. Unfortunately (fortunately), these donors have been limited by campaign finance laws to try and funnel their influence through cut-outs and other third/fourth parties. This diluted their influence (and craziness) because it was filtered through operatives who actually did know something about how politics actually works.

    But once Citizens United became the law of the land a lot of these rich yahoos realized they didn't need to hide in the shadows anymore and they could pick their preferred candidate and keep them going for much longer then they normally would have (see Gingrich in 2012). Of course, a lot of Republican candidates have figured this out (again, see Gingrich 2012) and realized that they path to riches lay through appealing to the craziness of a bunch of rich bastards. Actually winning was irrelevant. What mattered was what you could pocket in the process.

    In other words, Citizens United created the perfect breeding ground for grifters in the GOP.

  2. The traditional view is that super PACs are all about buying expensive air time for TV ads. But we're seeing more and more reports indicating that those ads aren't making any difference. And yet, Republicans continue to invest...big time."
    The money paid to TV adds buys the media and their favorable coverage of Republicans.