Citizens United and The Effect of Super PACs and Attack Ads on Presidential Elections

“The rise of Super PACs has had an intense effect on politics, mostly because the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful have become more powerful than ever, employing favors, and ensuring their influence over politicians using the now unlimited money they can spend on funding campaigns. Power stems from the ability to wield resources, money, and knowledge, and with Super PACs, corporations and billionaires are even closer to controlling more and more of that kind of political power. Politicians have always favored corporate power, but with the Citizens United decision, buddying up with the ultra-rich is absolutely necessary for politicians to have a serious campaign.”

 Citizens United 

     Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission is a 2010 court case that led to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the government could not limit the amount that a corporation could spend on a candidate’s campaign, as long as they don’t donate to the “official” campaign. The Supreme Court’s decision has effectively ruled that money is free speech, creating a political environment where the more money you have, the more your free speech is worth and the more powerful it is. The Citizens United decision has brought us even closer to an oligarchy, as it gives powerful corporations more political power than they have ever had before. The decision also overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and parts of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission that outlawed corporations and unions to engage in “electioneering communication”, which refers to the act of paid political advertisements in any form of media, such as television, newspapers, and radio.

     The power behind this decision lies in the way it allows corporations like insurance companies, oil companies, and other large industries to influence political elections more than ever. Instead of just engaging in lobbying, they can directly address and influence the American people through propaganda that they can spend unlimited amounts of money on. Getting somebody on their side- the side of corporate interests- instead of the interests of the American people, is the best thing a huge company could ever achieve for themselves.  Not only can the corporation choose which candidate they want to be elected, but they can choose a candidate, and then use the absolutely massive amount of money at their disposal to form the views and decisions of the candidate they choose to support. A candidate who wins their election after having hundreds of millions of dollars donated to them by, for example, a health insurance company, will surely return the favor by passing laws which privatize and increase the profits for that, and other, health insurance companies. A candidate can promise all they want to the American people, but they are not obligated to keep those promises, and every candidate has broken at least one of the promises they made to the American people, like Bush raising taxes even after his constant repetition of refusing to do so, Trumps lack of ability to implement many of the promises he made, such as claiming he wouldn’t close borders through executive orders, his promise to repeal Obamacare, and at least 60 other “promises” that he has yet to implement.

     While the American people may not be a candidates top priority, the corporations that helped to get them elected is absolutely a priority for them. Votes are how candidates get elected, but corporations are incredibly influential on who we vote for, making them some of the most powerful forces in politics. The Supreme Court based its Citizens United decision off of the idea of the “personhood” of a corporation, and the idea that their “personhood” lends them the right to free speech, and that free speech is allowed to take the form of endless donations to campaigns. There is an idea in the pro-super-PAC world that the right to spend money on whatever you want is the same as being able to say whatever you want, and that under the First Amendment you should be able to spend your money on advancing whatever agenda you, or the candidates you support, have.

     There is obviously an imbalance between the ultra-rich and the average American in this environment, where the average American has only one vote, the ultra-rich are allowed to influence the votes of hundreds of thousands of Americans. In the day and age of Super PACs, you can literally buy political power by airing ads, organizing voter outreach, and collecting donations from anyone, for any amount. The more money you have, the more political power you can buy. Corporations have already bought all the power that they can buy, specifically regarding the media and the fact that only six companies own every major news source, but now those same ultra-rich companies can now buy even more influence over politics by donating unlimited amounts of money to any candidate they want. The largest concern raised is that this power is “self-perpetuating because corporations can then use their influence to enhance their own wealth-seeking interests.”

                                                               Super PACs

     Every election cycle since 2010, Super PACs have taken on more and more of the traditional campaign roles, airing advertisements on radio and television, organizing donors and supporters, and engaging in voter outreach. Super PACs have a huge potential for power, as they can solicit as many donations from as many people as possible, with no limits except for that they cannot technically coordinate with the official campaign, even though many of the Super PACs are headed by former staff, friends, or family members of the candidate they are attempting to get elected. Most of the power of Super PACs comes from how easy it is to bend the poorly defined rules, and the unique ways politicians have devised to communicate with the organizers of their Super PACs. Giving directions through public campaign speeches has been a way for politicians to accomplish this.

     Citizens United has allowed corporations and politicians to have even tighter, more lucrative relationships with each other. Rick Perry, for example, was given 6 million dollars by Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of an energy pipeline.  Perry also received huge donations from Darwin Deason, both in his 2012 and 2016 campaign, at $250,000 in 2012 and $5 million in 2016. A Pro-Hillary PAC was given $25,000 each by Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway and many other corporate entities.  Jeb Bush received a huge amount of his money from corporations as well, “…not only… the $103 million raised by the super PAC supporting him, Right to Rise USA, but also because nearly $17 million of that amount came directly from business entities like partnerships”

     An interesting recent development is that candidates are associating themselves with Super PACs before officially running for a position. Both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz both had a Super PAC before a candidacy. John Kasich, who at the time had not even announced his candidacy, had already amassed $11.5 million dollars.

        The largest PAC devoted to Trump’s campaign is the Great America PAC, (of which petroleum executive James Volker is a large donor) whose mission states: “We strive to advance President Trump’s agenda day in and day out: repealing and replacing Obamacare, filling Supreme Court vacancies with rock-solid conservatives, protecting the 2nd Amendment, securing our borders, repealing the Iran Deal, and restoring the American economy are just some of the issues we must advocate Congress to act on.” The group has raised and spent over $30 million and has used that money in part to broadcast around 20,000 TV ads, and 300,000 radio ads.

     Republicans urged the Koch donation network to back Trump, saying that “they will want influence with the New York businessman.” That is the game of Super PACs and elections, the desire for corporate influence over politicians that can be won for millions of dollars. Dan Deason (son of Darwin Deason) was also quoted as saying “We think it’s really important that Donald convince Charles he’s the right guy, and for Charles to influence Donald’s policies.”

     There is a heavy pressure on the wealthy and powerful, especially for the Koch donation network- a network whose members are some of the wealthiest in America- and while many of the donors in that network actually opposed Trumps politics, they still saw donating to his campaign as an important political move, as they seek to influence his politics in their favor. Stanley Hubbard was quoted as saying, “A lot of us are giving a lot of money to the Kochs, and what we would expect is that they would do all they can to see to it that the right Supreme Court justices are selected… Supreme Court justices will last a lot longer than any president.” Many people interested in donating millions of dollars to a campaign do it not because they even want a specific candidate elected, but because they want that elected candidate to be influenced by them so that the donors can continue to shape politics post-election.

                                                  Ads in Campaigning

     Attack ads are a given whenever election season rolls around, and with their Super PACs, there is more money to be spent on these ads than ever. In 2012 super PACs were used as blunt instruments of destruction: the group backing Mitt Romney devoted about 90% of the $142 million it spent overall on TV attack ads.”

     The use of attack ads was huge in 2016, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign spending  60 million dollars on anti-Trump ads. Terry Madonna did, however, point out that,  “I don’t think you can win a presidential election in terms of your own personal appearances at rallies. We know that TV advertising has historically been effective. We do have this hyper-partisan division in our country, and the commercials probably aren’t moving as many people as they have in the past. But to not use them seems almost preposterous.”

     Trump spent nearly no money on television advertisements or attack ads, which John Geer (a professor who specializes in political advertisement) theorized was because Trump was willing to attack Hillary verbally at his rallies, and also because he was so heavily covered by media due to his controversial actions and speeches, the journalists did the advertising for him. The rise of Super PACs has had an intense effect on politics, mostly because the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful have become more powerful than ever, employing favors, and ensuring their influence over politicians using the now unlimited money they can spend on funding campaigns. Power stems from the ability to wield resources, money, and knowledge, and with Super PACs, corporations and billionaires are even closer to controlling more and more of that kind of political power. Politicians have always favored corporate power, but with the Citizens United decision, buddying up with the ultra-rich is absolutely necessary for politicians to have a serious campaign.

Photo Credit: David Fitzsimmons, political cartoonist, Arizona Star.      

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