Was Citizens United a Game-Changer for American Interest Groups?

by Shaun Manning on April 11, 2011

Guest blog by Robert G. Boatright, author of Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada (Cloth 978-0-472-07144-9 / Paper 978-0-472-05144-1), available now.

Boatright_cover_smInterest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada went to press at the end of 2010, at the same time that the Republican Party was rolling toward gaining 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate.  The Republican wave was predictable long before the election, but the size of the Republican gain exceeded most predictions.

As I document in the book, American campaign finance law was upended in early 2010 by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, which completely struck down restrictions on the ability of corporations and labor unions to air political advertisements.  The Court’s decision not only overturned one of the two major provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in 2002, it also overturned a 1990 Supreme Court decision (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce) that had prohibited corporations from engaging in “express advocacy,” directly exhorting voters to vote for or against a candidate.

It has been tempting to say, then, that the Court’s decisions enabled interest groups—and corporate interests in particular—to buy seats in the 2010 election.  The fact that Republican gains exceeded so many political scientists’ predictions, coupled with the absence of restrictions on group advertising, has been used by some as evidence of the effect of interest group advertising.  At the least, this is an interesting correlation.  I expressed skepticism in the book that Citizens United would have a profound effect on the 2010 elections or on interest groups’ electoral strategy.  Now that the dust has settled on the election results, I still stand by this claim.

Interest Groups and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States and Canada is an exploration of the relationship between changes in campaign finance law and changes in interest groups’ election-related activities.  In my consideration of group adaptations to BCRA, I argued that the law’s restrictions on advertising—specifically, its prohibition on election-related ads by groups during the 60 days prior to the general election or 30 days prior to the primary election—had little effect.  This is the case because many groups had already become disenchanted with using television and had begun to invest their resources more heavily in “ground war” activities and in Internet communication—activities which, according to virtually all analyses, are far more cost-effective than advertising.  Furthermore, the law did not prohibit using PAC money for advertisements, and many groups were able simply to shift to using PAC money.  In short, I argued, BCRA merely pushed groups in a direction that they had already been heading.  This is part of a broader argument about changes in campaign finance law—we must be careful not to confuse the effects of legal changes with changes in politics or changes in technology.

What do we make, then, of the explosion in advertising in the 2010 election?  We had certainly not seen a decline in advertising in 2008, but interest groups had played a lesser role in the 2008 election than they had in previous years.  As research by the Wesleyan Advertising Project shows, interest group advertisements were back with a vengeance in 2010.  Few groups took advantage of their new ability to engage in express advocacy, but the sort of issue advocacy advertisements that were prevalent before BCRA had returned in 2010.

The question, however, is not whether there was more advertising in 2010—there clearly was—but whether the advertisements made a difference and whether the 2010 election effectively erased all of the changes interest groups had made from 2002 through 2008 in adjusting to BCRA.  I see little evidence that the increase in corporate advertising made a difference in individual races.  As has been extensively documented, incumbent Democrats still handily outspent their opponents in most of the competitive races, and even with interest group advertising factored in, few challengers outspent their opponents.  In some of these races, the outcome was so lopsided that it is hard to imagine the margin of victory having anything to do with interest group activity.

Corporations, and corporate shell groups, advertise because they do not have the membership or resources to develop an effective ground game.  One of the major consequences of BCRA was to force the parties and the major interest groups to turn their attention to developing extensive member contacting programs and means of communicating directly with voters.  BCRA made lists of names more valuable.  In addition, increasing use of the internet made gathering lists of names more important both for get-out-the-vote programs and for fundraising purposes.  The sort of social networking efforts pioneered by the Howard Dean campaign and by MoveOn.org were, in part, a response to BCRA, and these efforts served, in turn, as a blueprint for Tea Party groups and for other organizations that sought to use online communication to facilitate off-line activism on the part of members.  There were several congressional races where pre-election polls were several percentage points off.  While polling experts have argued that in these instances the pollsters failed to accurately determine who would vote, another way to look at these races is to say that the ground game in support of one candidate or other outperformed expectations.  In races such as Harry Reid’s defeat of Sharron Angle in Nevada (where Reid outperformed pre-election polls by 3 to 4 percentage points) it seems evident that a good ground game beats a barrage of advertisements.

This is not to say that Republican candidates did not benefit from ground war activities; instead, it is to say that these sorts of activities were legal under BCRA, and were in fact an adaptation to BCRA.  The Republican wave, in my opinion, would have been just as high without the Citizens United decision and the increase in corporate advertising.  This does not mean that Citizens United was a good thing, or even a benign force, but it does mean that its electoral consequences in 2010 were limited.  It may be more consequential in 2012, but I doubt that advertising will ever again play the sort of role it played in the 1990s.

The one area where corporate advertising might have played a role, however, was in the expansion of the playing field in 2010.  No previous election had seen so many seats in play.  A pre-election analysis by the Club for Growth alleged that as many as 110 Democratic seats might be in play.  The willingness of groups to advertise early in so many congressional districts may have led to polling results that suggested to Republicans that seats they had never considered vulnerable before were worth a second look.  In the relatively safe Democratic district where I reside (Massachusetts’ 3rd) a couple of brave business-sponsored groups were willing to air $500,000 worth of advertisements, just to see if they influenced our congressman’s polling results.  Surely this happened in many other districts, and may have broadened the playing field, spreading Democratic money too thinly nationwide.

As many have mentioned, a substantial percentage of these advertisements were legal under BCRA; the main result of Citizens United may have been to make corporations feel better about their advertising—to give them a psychological boost.  This is, of course, hard to quantify.  The 2010 results indicate, however, that we are likely to see a lot more advertising in the future, but that it is not clear how effective these ads will be.  In this sense, the changes groups made in response to BCRA live on even while important aspects of the law do not.

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