Today, in the scorching D.C. summer heat, activists marched over two miles from the “Take Back the Dream Conference” to rally outside of the offices of Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and his super PAC American Crossroads. Crying out, “Karl Rove can’t buy my vote” and “Whose democracy? Our Democracy!” activists made their voices heard throughout the city, and protested not only Karl Rove and his nefarious networks, but an electoral system that disenfranchises the disenfranchised, and empowers the empowered.
People For’s Diallo Brooks spoke at the rally, and encouraged activists to continue fighting for a just society. “This is about preserving our democracy, that is why we are here!” he cried out to the audience, and not losing his sense of humor, concluded, “Stay cool in the heat, yall!”
In total, the candidates in the 2008 presidential election spent just over $1 billion on their campaigns. Just four years ago, President Obama raised $750 million, primarily via small donations from grassroots supporters. But the landscape looks pretty different in 2012: that amount will be surpassed by just a handful of GOP patrons and super PACs alone.
Made possible by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, dark money organizations like Restore Our Future and American Crossroads will raise and spend virtually unlimited amounts to prop up Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican ticket. Politico notes that American Crossroads and the affiliated Crossroads GPS, a Karl Rove brainchild, is expected to spend up to $300 million. That’s almost as much as John McCain spent on his entire 2008 run.
The bulk of campaign expenditures go to advertising – and $1 billion certainly buys a lot of airtime. Thanks to Citizens United, this elite group of financiers can buy the loudest, most far-reaching voice in the 2012 elections. The amount collected by Super PACs and 501 c(4)s dramatically dwarfs traditional party and direct-campaign fundraising, which is the mechanism by which the grassroots are able to contribute to the process. The contrast is stark:
Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent twice as much on the air as the campaign did in the thick of the primaries: Through March, the campaign had put $16.7 million into TV, while ROF shelled out $33.2 million.
In Florida, the super PAC outspent the campaign, $8.8 million to $6.7 million. (The campaign can get more spots per dollar because of more favorable rates.) In Michigan, it was $2.3 million to $1.5 million. In Ohio, ROF outspent the campaign, $2.3 million to $1.5 million.
The Citizens United decision has granted the 0.01% more leeway to try to buy our democracy than ever before. The sheer numbers make the need for constitutional remedies to overturn that decision and restore the balance of influence in our elections to everyday Americans is more apparent than ever.
If there was any question that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United skews the balance of influence in our elections to the rich, an analysis by Rolling Stone shows that the real beneficiaries of the decision are really the very very rich. This profile of the 16 donors who have given at least $1 million to super PACs supporting Mitt Romney, including hedge fund managers, hotel tycoons, oil barons and of course, William Koch, reveals who is making the biggest impact in the presidential election.
In a democracy, we should be electing those who represent vast swaths of the American people. But one thing is clear: the special interests propping up Romney’s campaign have very little in common with average Americans. As Rolling Stone notes:
Most of the megadonors backing his candidacy are elderly billionaires: Their median age is 66, and their median wealth is $1 billion. Each is looking for a payoff that will benefit his business interests, and they will all profit from Romney's pledge to eliminate inheritance taxes, extend the Bush tax cuts for the superwealthy – and then slash the top tax rate by another 20 percent. Romney has firmly joined the ranks of the economic nutcases who spout the lie of trickle-down economics.
How are these individuals able to throw so much of their wealth into the race? Essentially, Citizens United allows individuals and corporations to skirt the caps on contributions to campaign treasuries by funneling money through entities like Super PACs and 501c4 organizations:
Under the new rules, the richest men in America are plying candidates with donations far beyond what Congress intended. "They can still give the maximum $2,500 directly to the campaign – and then turn around and give $25 million to the Super PAC," says Trevor Potter, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. A single patron can now prop up an entire candidacy, as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson did with a $20 million donation to the Super PAC backing Newt Gingrich.
It’s unlikely that these donors are throwing so much money into the race solely for bragging rights – they certainly have agendas of their own. Most of the individuals profiled in the article stand to benefit from Romney agenda: more tax cuts to the rich, lax regulation of Wall Street and other industries, a hamstrung E.P.A, lucrative government contracts – and their outsized contributions demonstrate their belief that money buys influence. Citizens United exacerbated this unfortunate reality. At least that can be fixed by the people, with an amendment to the Constitution.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, election watchers have predicted that the influx of unaccountable and often anonymous election spending would lead to a dramatic increase in dirty, dishonest attack ads. A report by the New York Times confirms those fears. High-profile Republican strategists for a super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts created a proposal titled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good,” which lays out an aggressive character attack against the President. Focusing on his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the ads will seek to portray the President as unfit to lead because of his formative experiences – a strategy that his 2008 opponent, Senator John McCain, refused to authorize. Even Mitt Romney has avoided such attacks, believing that they would backfire – but unaccountable super PACs are not necessarily taking it off the table:
“Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama’s opinions of America and the world were formed,” the proposal says. “And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.”
How can one person’s extreme opinion make its way to aerial banners flying over the Democratic Convention, outdoor advertisements and television screens across the country?
“Joe Ricketts is prepared to spend significant resources in the 2012 election in both the presidential race and Congressional races,” said Brian Baker, the president and general counsel to Mr. Ricketts’ super PAC, called the Ending Spending Action Fund. “He is very concerned about the future direction of the country and plans to take a stand.”
Thanks to his wealth and Citizens United, he can do just that. Unfortunately, average Americans don’t have this luxury, and our democracy suffers greatly as a result.
Following the outcry in response to today’s article, Mr. Ricketts issued a statement claiming he had never approved the plan and disavows the type of politics it represents, saying that the proposal “was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take.” Nonetheless, the critical harm posed by Citizens United is clear. Just because Mr. Ricketts chose not to run this attack ad doesn’t mean that someone else won’t. The need to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United to protect our democracy from the lopsided influence of wealthy special interests is even more clear today.
Ten states are holding primaries and caucuses today, earning March 6th the title of “Super Tuesday.” Participants will show up, cast their vote, and hopefully feel good for participating in the democratic process and fulfilling their civic duty.
But thanks to Citizens United, and the Super PACs that flawed decision gave rise to, the voters are not the stars of this show. An outpouring of cash from a few extremely wealthy donors has dramatically altered the campaign landscape, altering the balance of influence from individual donors and grassroots donors to rich special interests and corporations.
As illustrated above by Dave Granlund, tonight’s contests should really be called Super-PAC Tuesday. NPR reports that in the ten states up for grabs, Super PACs have spent a whopping $12 million for ads:
Leading the way is Restore Our Future, the superPAC that backs former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. According to Federal Election Commission numbers, Restore Our Future has spent $6.9 million on the Super Tuesday states.
"The groups have clearly taken the lead in advertising for the whole Republican primary. They're very much taking the lead in advertising for Super Tuesday. It's mostly the 'Restore Our Future show,' followed by Winning Our Future, which is the Gingrich group, and Red, White and Blue, which is the Santorum group," says Ken Goldstein, who tracks political ad spending for Kantar Media CMAG.
Red, White and Blue has spent some $1.3 million on Super Tuesday, and has been running an ad in Ohio that goes after Romney for his alleged similarities to the man all Republicans want to defeat in November: President Obama.
These ads supposedly (and unconvincingly) act independently from a candidate’s official campaign, meaning that candidates are unaccountable for their content. But as Katrina vanden Huevel points out in today’s Washington Post, these superPACs reach “barely a legal fiction,” populated as they are with former staff and fundraisers for the candidates they “independently” support. And this is in addition to the spending by 501 c-4 organizations the sources for which do not even have to be disclosed.
This is not what democracy looks like. We have to end unfettered political spending in our elections system – and solutions like the DISCLOSE Act and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United are gaining steam. $12 million worth of ads on Super-PAC Tuesday alone should convince everyone that enough is enough.