Does Money Win Elections?

A look at the Effects of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (FEC)

Campaign Financing Getty Images

In 2010 the Supreme Court made a decision in the Citizens United vs. FEC case that declared that “political speech is indispensable to a democracy, which is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation” (Oyez). The decision also set a precedent for Super PACs and political nonprofits (501(c)s) also referred to as non undisclosed groups. Super PACs are organizations that must disclose their donors, but the specific donors do not have to disclose where they got their funding from, and that has caused a loophole in the supposed transparent process. Nonprofits or 501(c)s do not have to disclose donors and thus give strength to dark money, which is money where the origin of the funding can not be traced. This now leads to the question of did the decision made in Citizens United vs. FEC, which created a precedent for dark money and unlimited spending, create an advantage for the candidates who have the most money in elections?

In 2018 a poll showed that 77% of voters believed that individuals and groups should be limited with the contributions they spend on campaigns (Jones 2018). That same poll showed that 65% of voters believed laws should be crafted in order to limit the role money plays in elections (Jones 2018). This fear of political corruption because of money has been consistent with the increase in funding from

Graph 2.0

Super PACs. Graph 1.0 shows the steady increase in total spending from several different election years. Graph 2.0 shows spending from Super PACs and spending from undisclosed groups. It is important to note that the total money spent has rapidly increased throughout the past election cycles and that the amount of money spent from undisclosed groups has decreased. One may assume that means that the amount of money spent by campaigns from undisclosed donors has decreased, but Super PACs disclose donors, but those donors do not have to disclose where they originally received their funding, so that loophole still leaves room for dark money.

With opinions and public fear aside when looking at the effects of the Citizens United case by creating a precedent for dark money in election spending there is no true correlation between the increase in dark money and candidates winning elections. This can be seen when looking at Graph 3.0.

The percent of top spending candidates who won elections has been consistent even compared to an election cycle before the Citizens United case decision. Meaning, the loopholes Citizens United created did not greatly impact the likelihood of winning a congressional election, because even before the decision the candidates who spent the most were winning elections. This shows that the increase in funding is not the deciding factor for a candidate’s success and studies show that other factors such as incumbency and voter party loyalty have played bigger factors in election results (Koerth 2018). This now leads to the question of what role has money played in politics, even beyond Citizens United decision creating an increase in ways for corporations and other entities to donate money?

Money has increased throughout the election cycles but there is no correlation between money and winning elections. The real connection is between campaign donations and policy influence. The suggestions given by donating corporations and entities is seen to influence their say on legislation. This has been studied by political scientist Amy McKay. Dr. McKay looked specifically at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and tried to see the connections between the public comments and suggestions corporations left and the impact their donations or fundraisers had on their influence. While donations didn’t guarantee the influence of the corporations, it did increase their chances of being heard and having their suggestions implemented through amendments of bills (McKay 2018). Now, this doesn’t mean that the decision and precedent created by the Citizen United case put more value on money in elections and policy decisions, but it did create more loopholes for undisclosed corporations and entities to increase their likelihood of having influence on the very legislation being passed in the United States Congress.

While funding has increased every election cycle and specifically Super PACs there is no true correlation between that and the winners of elections. There are other factors such as the favorability of an incumbent and the loyalty a voter has for their party that determines winners of elections (Koerth 2018). This does not mean there is no influence by money in politics. Citizens United vs. FEC decision may not have had a direct effect on winners in elections but it has opened the floodgate to more influence by corporations in the very legislation that can impact many everyday Americans.

Works Cited

“Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” Oyez, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, www.oyez.org/cases/2008/08-205.

Jones, Bradley. “Most Americans Want to Limit Campaign Spending.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/08/most-americans-want-to-limit-campaign-spending-say-big-donors-have-greater-political-influence/.

Koerth , Maggie. “How Money Affects Elections.” FiveThirtyEight, ABC News, 10 Sept. 2018, fivethirtyeight.com/features/money-and-elections-a-complicated-love-story/.

Koerth, Maggie. “Everyone Knows Money Influences Politics … Except Scientists.” FiveThirtyEight, ABC News , 4 June 2019, fivethirtyeight.com/features/everyone-knows-money-influences-politics-except-scientists/.

McKay, Amy Melissa. “Fundraising for Favors? Linking Lobbyist-Hosted Fundraisers to Legislative Benefits.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 4, Dec. 2018, pp. 869–880, doi:10.1177/1065912918771745.

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