KENNEDY: The unforeseen impact of Citizens United

January 9, 2016

Sheila Suess KennedyAs the 2016 campaign season heats up, one interesting—and unanticipated—development has been the effect of the gushers of political money dispensed in the wake of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the lack of effect; as a blogger for the Washington Monthly recently put it, the billions of dollars being spent to support the various presidential candidates have yielded, at best, a “mixed bag” of results.

At this point in the campaign, at least, the candidates with the most money are not the candidates who are leading in the polls.

Now, it’s a truism of political campaigning that what matters is not the finite amount of money a candidate has available. What counts is whether the campaign has enough money to get its message out. Funds spent after a campaign has raised enough money to communicate its priorities to voters are less important. (That’s why “Emily’s List” stands for “Early Money is like Yeast.”) The enormous amounts of money being funneled into the various candidacies suggest that, no matter how strange the message, no matter how unlikely the messenger, that yeast is available.

In fact, on the Republican side, a big part of the problem is that—with more than enough “sugar daddy” billionaires to go around—even the most marginal candidates have been able to remain in the race far beyond what might be considered their “sell by” date. Among other things, that has prevented the emergence of a single candidate who might consolidate the “Anyone but The Donald” vote.

The impact of dueling billionaires with contending presidential preferences, however, explains only so much. Far more consequential is the profound but dimly understood change in the way voters receive information, and the ways in which that change has complicated the job of getting the message out.

As the blogger at Washington Monthly noted: “It has always been assumed that the role of money in elections was to pay for expensive television advertisements. More people are starting to notice that those aren’t working very well anymore. I’ve postulated that the reason for that started with remote controls, runs through things like TiVo, and is now facing the phenomenon of cord cutters and streaming. Who actually sits through a television ad anymore these days?”

A few of the presidential candidates are belatedly recognizing the diminished potency of television ads. Jeb Bush, who has probably spent the most on television advertisements (ads that have had no perceptible effect on his poll numbers), recently canceled most of his Iowa ad buy and shifted resources there and elsewhere to his campaign’s ground game. Other campaigns are also increasing their focus on field operations.

So the future of campaign activities will be real person-to-person contact, digital communication, phone calls and—for conservatives—talk radio. In addition to that, we’ll see candidates exploit Trump’s mastery of what Mark Cuban called “headline porn.”

None of that costs much money (especially compared to television advertising). So what’s a billionaire to do?

It would be ironic in the extreme if—rather than allowing plutocrats to spend unlimited amounts of money to subvert the democratic process (as many of us feared)—Citizens United simply seduced them into wasting billions on unproductive and/or obsolete campaign technologies.

None of this lessens the necessity of reversing Citizens United. But it is gratifying.

How did the Scots’ poet Robert Burns put it? “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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