Has Citizens United Caused A Decline in Overall Campaign Spending?

Here’s an interesting question: why is spending on midterm races this cycle down from the previous midterm expenditures in 2006?***

“What’s that?” you ask. Didn’t you just read Politico’s lead story announcing that “Outside organizations – business associations, unions, ideological groups and others – have spent $153 million on political advertising and messaging this midterm election cycle – more than double their total contributions in the 2006 cycle, according to a new study.”

And didn’t the Open Secrets website publish data showing that independent expenditures have “nearly tripled between the 2006 and 2010 cycles” – an increase that, quite predictably, they claim is “attributable to the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision”?  How can I suggest spending is down this campaign cycle?

Because it is. As always, one needs to dig beneath the headline to examine the data itself.

In this case, the data cited by Politico and highlighted on the Open Secrets website excludes spending by the political parties themselves. When we include party spending, it turns out that overall spending is, so far, less than what was spent during the 2006 midterms. Here’s the actual data on total campaign spending, including money spent by the parties, as listed at the Open Secrets website.

Cycle Total $ Pct increase from previous election type Ind. Expend. $  without Parties Ind. Expend. $ with Parties
1990 7,272,769 5,658,990 5,710,074
1992 19,758,475 10,946,636 11,068,327
1994 9,565,051 31.5% 5,219,965 5,245,736
1996 29,548,466 10,168,022 21,832,732
1998 16,755,007 75% 10,266,136 11,820,470
2000 54,531,695 33,022,189 36,693,258
2002 30,920,191 84.5% 16,588,100 20,221,814
2004 446,283,002 68,718,830 316,710,285
2006 299,848,443 870% 37,380,748 268,391,469
2008 581,971,573 156,845,524 440,267,438
2010 230,437,494 ? 111,045,828 188,011,964

Of course, there is a bit less than a month to go during the current cycle, so it is quite possible that spending for the 2010 midterms may in the end match or even eclipse spending from previous midterms.  But it appears that the deluge of campaign money that was supposed to appear in the wake of the Citizens United decision has not materialized.  Who could have predicted that?

Why, my colleague Bert Johnson did, in a guest blog at this site shortly after the decision was rendered.  Bert noted that the Court’s decision allowing corporations and labor unions to spend money on independent expenditures might alter the pathway through which money was raised and spent, but that it would likely have little independent impact on the total amount of money that flowed into the system.  It appears that Bert was correct and for reasons that long-time readers have heard me express many times before: money always finds its way to candidates.   Put another way, Citizens United was unlikely to spur an increase in spending because the money from corporations and labor unions was already finding its way to candidates through other means, including political actions committees, 527 groups, and nonprofits.  In the current election cycle, donors have evidently opted to move away from parties and toward contributing to 501(c) non-profit groups, presumably because these types of contributions do not have to be disclosed.  But the total amount of money flowing into the system does not appear to have significantly increased, despite the predictions to the contrary by many pundits.  Similarly, the accelerating rate of increase in spending over the previous midterm seen in the past is not likely to occur this time around.

***ADDENDUM:  A few minutes after posting this article but before sending out the distribution notice, I went back to the Open Secrets website to see whether they had updated their data – and they have.  Rather than rewrite the post’s title and lead sentence  (rewriting seems Orwellian and frankly, I’m hoping the title will get you read the post!) I am simply including this addendum. You can see the latest fundraising data here, but the important point is that in the span of roughly a day, the Center for Responsible Politics has recorded an additional $13 million in overall independent spending.  Combined with additional independent spending by parties, this has finally pushed the overall independent (not total) spending for the 2010 election cycle to $246 million.  That is still less than what was spent in this category in 2006 (see table above) but, according to the website, it is on pace as of Oct. 15 to set a new record for independent spending.   As far as I can tell Open Secrets has not updated their overall campaign spending as yet, but I expect that in the end it too will eclipse the 2006 record, given the number of competitive seats.  But it is surprising (at least  to me) that it has not increased by a greater amount.  One explanation is that with the slow economy,  there simply isn’t as  much money to give. However, we may yet see a surge in spending during the closing days. Stay tuned.

(Note: I have slightly edited the final paragraph to make clear that the record spending is based on a comparison of outside spending by groups and parties as of Oct. 15, 2006 vs Oct. 15, 2010, and not a comparison of overall independent or total spending, both of which as yet remain below their final 2006 amounts).


  1. Matt and Bert,

    How about the economic growth engine as an explanation?

    Are there any good figures for how GDP or Dow growth rate affects the growth rate in campaign spending? If you don’t know of any studies, would you feel comfortable running the numbers?

  2. Martin,

    I think that is the standard political science explanation (although I’ll defer to Bert on this) – that the growth in campaign spending in the U.S. (and I believe in the UK) closely tracks changes in GDP. Which would explain why spending is up, but at a smaller rate of increase, this election cycle.

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