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How did the Citizens United decision affect US government policy?

FrameBenignly          10 May 2015 05:15 PM

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melian 11 May 2015 11:36 AM

There is a tendency to somewhat overestimate the importance of campaign spending on government policies. Studies show that to get an extra percentage point in general elections, candidates need to spend twice as much as their rivals. And the costs are rising exponentially (for extra two percent the spending has to be quadrupled). Most people are simply too rigid in their political preferences to be strongly affected by advertisements.

Of course, even one per cent can make a decisive difference. Also, things are different in party primaries when candidates compete against people with more similar platforms. Then getting public attention is really crucial.


FrameBenignly 14 May 2015 01:18 PM

Citizens United was a 2009 court case which stated: "Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections." Source: SCOTUSblog

I'd like to note a bunch of related research findings.

As Melian noted, most researchers believe campaign spending doesn't impact elections much although opinions do vary. However, the question is not how much campaign spending influences election outcomes, but how much campaign spending influences policy outcomes. If both candidates are changing their positions in response to campaign contributions, this can be a large impact. The more important question then is how much politicians believe campaign spending affects them. Their belief PLUS the actual effect reflects the total change in outcomes.

Research that focuses on policy outcomes rather than electoral outcomes has generally found a very strong effect.

Most of this research is done in the context of rent-seeking. Lobbyists will pay money to have politicans give them a competitive advantage such as a special tax loophole. This has been generally found to be very effective. However, fewer have considered a different possibility. Some of this lobbying may improve the government.

American democracy tends to favor the opinions of the rich. If corporations are making generally smarter decisions than the average voter on the direction of the economy, it is possible the government might improve overall.

And Citizens United has dramatically increased that level of spending. I've recently come to the conclusion this is the most important policy change in the last 10 years. I'm interested in how it will play out.

There is a possibility that there is a finite limit to the total potential influence of lobbying, and voters will always have a certain level of say; however, their share of donations has just been dramatically decreased, effectively to zero.


ChristianKl 19 May 2015 08:23 AM

After reading a bit more about the issue, I have to update a bit. It doesn't seem to be the case that most of the money is untraceable and we know how much money goes into SuperPacs. It's possible to route money through shell corporations to make it untraceable but that doesn't seem to go on that much.

Quite interestingly the relection rate of members of the US House of Representatives dropped by from 95% to 85% after Citizens United if you compare the 2008 election to the 2010 election. That's the lowest rate since 1970.

In races that incumbents lost Super PACs spent on average 900.000$ while in races that get won Super PACs only spends on average 75.000$.

But in the years after 2014 the relection rate for the US House of Representatives rose again to 95%.

It's still an interesting effect.


Jiro 13 May 2015 09:07 AM

The first thing I would ask here is "what do you believe the Citizens United decision decided on?" This decision is one which was seized on by politcal groups and as a result, there are misconceptions about what the decision actually was.


ChristianKl 11 May 2015 05:21 PM

It's very hard to say.

It used to be the case that if a candidate had 1 million to spend on campaign ads, the candidate could decide which issues get featured in those ads.

If the candidates campaign controls 500.000 and his Super-Pac controls 500.000 the candidate can only control the issues that are features in the ads payed by their campaign. The are officially forbidden to coordinate with the Super-Pac.
As a result I would expect that the donors of the Super-Pac have a bigger influence on the issues that the Super-Pac decides to feature. The Super-Pac will still feature ads that help the candidate but that isn't the Super-Pac only priority.

As a result lobbyists get more influence over the position on which candidates campaign.

Super-Pac don't have to be open about their donors and as a result money flow is less transparent than it was before Citizens United. That also makes it harder to know about the effects of the money.