I have noticed that there is concern, notably from my friends who are left-of-center, that the Citizens United decision will ruin the political process. Jeffrey Toobin has an excellent article in the New Yorker about the actual process through which the decision came to be. Toobin laments the decision as conservative judicial activism on the Supreme Court. Perhaps. However, I’ve noticed that among those who fit neatly into either the categories “left” and “right” an activist court ruling seems to be defined by whether or not they agree with the decision. Others, such as John Cassidy have suggested that the situation in Wisconsin highlights what is some sort of new class war in the U.S. that pits billionaires against union workers. Although he doesn’t explicitly mention it, it seems that the Citizens United case looms large. Finally, the New York Times ran a series of posts asking whether or not the upcoming presidential election can be won without Wall Street. The role of Super PACs and therefore the Citizens United decision again play an important role.
Despite the outcry about Citizens United, it isn’t necessarily clear that we should be concerned. However, as someone who isn’t (a) a political scientist or (b) familiar with the literature on the matter, I cannot say for certain whether the court decision will have any consequence in terms of election results. Nonetheless, there are some unanswered questions (at least that I haven’t seen answered) that would seemingly give some indication of whether or not one should be concerned about the effect of the Citizens United decision. I would like to discuss each of these questions in turn and hopefully those with knowledge on these issues can enlighten me either in the comments or through email.
1. Does causation run from campaign money to victories or does it run from probable victory to campaign money? This seems to be one of most important questions to answer? Essentially, it is important to know whether increased funding for a particular campaign actually increases the probability that the candidate wins the election. An alternative hypothesis is that campaign contributions come from two places: (1) diehard ideological supporters and (2) donors who are “on the bandwagon,” giving to the candidate they think might be the winner. If this latter hypothesis is true, then campaign spending isn’t causal and therefore we shouldn’t be particularly concerned with how much money is raised.
2. Even if the money raised by the campaign isn’t causal, this doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern. It might be the case that the candidates feel an obligation to “repay” their large donors. What evidence is there to support this idea? Again, this is a causation question. Suppose pro-choice groups give money to Obama and pro-life groups give money to Romney. One candidate wins the election. The one that wins signs into law something that the corresponding group supports. Is this because they gave the candidate money? Or, did they give the candidate money because they knew that the candidate would pass favorable legislation?
3. If campaign contributions have a causal effect on the probability of victory or create a system of “repayment”, this still doesn’t tell us about the marginal effect of the Citizens United decision. In other words, how much additional campaign funding is (will be) acquired as a result of this decision. The answer is not as simple as one might think. We have campaign finance laws, but these laws are broken. We know how many are charged and convicted with crimes related to campaign finance, but we don’t know how much of this type of behavior is not discovered. In other words, how much of the additional funding that candidates receive would have been given illegally anyway?
Also, note that if contributions have no causal effect, this question is irrelevant.
4. My left-of-center friends seem to think that the Citizens United decision will direct money from corporations and wealthy individuals toward Republican candidates. Perhaps I am blinded by the fact that I do not fit neatly into one particular ideological category, but is there any evidence that this is correct? Surely there are wealthy individuals who support Democrats. Hollywood, for example, seems disproportionately in favor of the Democratic Party.
There are many more questions that I could ask, but this seems like a good starting point. Hopefully those who know more than I do can offer some enlightenment.