Will Citizens United Win It for Romney?

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions out of the way, the long-predicted political advertising spending spree for the lead up to November 6has finally gotten underway.  More than $3 billion is expected to be spent on various types of ads (TV, radio, robocalls, mailers, and so on), an increase of $500 million over 2008. The Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group reports that as of early September, candidates have spent about a third of an estimated total of $1.1 billion on TV ads so far – which leaves them more to spend in the next six weeks than they already have over the last six months. How much of an impact will it have on the presidential race?

It's certainly hard to tell.

One reason for this is because political spending has increased significantly in this election cycle. Most liberals and news reports would put this torrent of money down to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United ruling. Matt Bai, chief political correspondent of the New York Times magazine, explains this ruling: "The Supreme Court wiped away much of the rigmarole about “express advocacy” and “electioneering.” Now any outside group (super-PACs and 501(c)(4)s) can use corporate money to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why, and they can do so right up to Election Day.” Interestingly, as total campaign spending goes, the increase in political contributions (through March) has been fairly modest – spending increases from 2008 to 2012 (135%) are not dissimilar to the increase from 2004 to 2008 (164%).

To be fair, even before the Citizens United ruling, “social-welfare groups” known as 527 organizations could raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals and run campaigns without being accountable to a party or candidate. They were unlikely to do so, because there was considerable legal risk – three famous 527 groups (swiftboat veterans amongst them) violated federal laws on disclosure in 2004 – and personal risk – any ad campaigns would have had to be attributed to the particular individual. Today, however, individual contributors to outside groups can practically anonymously “overtly make the case for one candidate over another.” This lack of accountability has led to this cycle’s barrage of negative (and often misleading) TV ads from groups aligned with both candidates – 70 percent of ads early in this cycle were negative, versus 8 percent in 2008.

Given that Republican-aligned outside groups have outraised Democrat-aligned outside groups by more than 2-to-1, it is likely that there’ll be many more Obama-bashing ads than Romney-bashing ones. One must wonder if this alone will tip the race in Romney’s favor. I don’t think so.

TV ads are certainly useful. Daniel Adler of Rolling Stone Magazine writes: “While TV advertising might not be a terribly efficient means of reaching swing voters, it’s probably more efficient than any alternative.” Yes, but an advantage only in terms of negativity may not necessarily be of any use. One well-known recent study conducted by researchers from Rutgers and George Washington University concluded: “All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes… [There is no] any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout." For the most part, this is likely to be true. As NPR reports, the effects of negative campaigning are only pronounced when voters are unfamiliar with candidates, which is unlikely to be the case in this election.

So, as much as Citizens United has changed the electoral landscape, its effects on the presidential race alone are likely to be muted. Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the case for smaller congressional and state congressional races, where less is known about candidates’ records. As we have already seen, the power that a sudden influx of campaign cash can wield on electoral outcomes is immense, but Obama will probably be spared.