Citizens United Against Donald Trump
While surveying the bleak political landscape that is the 2016 election season, I came across the above chart in a gem of an article written by Scott Shackford over at the Hit & Run blog on Reason.com. What this chart shows (rather strikingly) is how much free media each candidate has “earned” this election cycle. That is how much media coverage (positive, negative, or neutral) each candidate has received, but for which that candidate did not pay. This includes things like television news segments and interviews. For purposes of quantification, the earned media is converted to a dollar value based on current advertising rates. The chart is illustrative of exactly what is wrong with the idea that campaign finance laws will clean-up our “corrupt” political system and the idea that overturning Citizens United v. FEC is the panacea that will finally fix our government and make it more responsive to the people.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Citizens United stands for the simple proposition that the government cannot restrict independent expenditures in support of a candidate for office made by corporations, labor unions, or other collective entities. While campaigning, both Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) advocated for overturning Citizens United. Donald Trump (R) speaks frequently about the virtue of being “self-funded” and Bernie Sanders (I) likes to point out that the average contribution to his campaign is only $27.
These four candidates represent a broad swath of the American political spectrum and yet they all seemingly agree on this issue. Can you think of a single other issue on which all four agree? There is a reason that you rarely see politicians campaigning against campaign finance regulations or defending Citizens United. See, if your last name is Bush, Clinton, or Trump, you don’t need millions of dollars in independent expenditures to establish name recognition and promote your message. Voters already know these candidates from years of (free) media coverage, prior political offices they’ve held, or a combination of both. For incumbents, name recognition alone is a huge advantage. In fact, incumbents in Congress are re-elected at an over 90% rate despite consistently low approval ratings.
In reality, the candidates most harmed by campaign finance restrictions are first-time candidates and political outsiders with little to no name recognition. Joe and Jane Politician, who aren’t billionaires and don’t have access to free media (or interviews with Oprah), are at a huge disadvantage. This is exactly why career politicians love campaign finance regulations so dearly (and hate Citizens United so passionately). These regulations have the effect of firmly entrenching incumbents in their beloved elected seats.
There is no doubt that prior to this election season, Bernie Sanders’s name recognition lagged far behind all of the previously discussed candidates. Yet even Senator Sanders, who frequently decries our “corrupt campaign finance system,” has benefited from the type of Super PAC money he campaigns against. He certainly has a grassroots movement that is expansive and admirable, but it would be a stretch to say that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that labor unions have spent in favor of his candidacy haven’t elevated his name recognition to some degree. Additionally, according to the chart, he’s received more earned media than any Republican candidate other than Donald Trump.
Money in politics isn’t the cause of our government’s problems, it is a result of a real problem that nobody wants to talk about: A large portion of the electorate is uninformed (or misinformed) and decides on the candidate for which they are going to vote based on television ads, comedy news shows, Internet memes, and yard signs in the weeks leading up to an election. Money, in the form of campaign expenditures, is the only reliable tool candidates can use to efficiently speak to these voters and most campaign finance regulations don’t account for the large impact of free media (and other variables) in seeking to restrict these expenditures. I won’t pretend to have a solution for that problem, but fix it and money in politics won’t be as necessary.
As we are now staring down the barrel of the soul-crushing shotgun that is a Donald Trump v. Hillary Clinton (v. Gary Johnson (L)) general election, Secretary Clinton will ironically need to embrace the Citizens United decision to compete with Donald Trump, especially if he continues to receive billions of dollars in free media. She’s even signaled that she is going to do so. The rest of us should embrace the decision as well.