The 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination for president has provided a clear indication of the shape of post-Citizens United politics in America.
Just take a look at what has happened in the campaign thus far:
Mitt Romney emerged as an early frontrunner. A series of candidates then sequentially emerged as the "NotRomney" candidate.
Two almost immediately self-destructed. The first of these was Rick Perry, whose completely inarticulate debate performances provided the basis for self-destruction. Then Herman Cain imploded due to allegations of sexual affairs (and an obvious lack of policy knowledge). Some would add Michele Bachman and Donald Trump to this list. Each did well momentarily in polls, but could not withstand serious scrutiny. These implosions were likely not all that different from what would have occurred in earlier years and thus probably tell us nothing about the future of our politics. Fatally flawed candidates will always implode. That is no great insight and no change in our political system.
What happened next, however, was qualitatively different. The next NotRomney candidate was Newt Gingrich. He shot up in the polls immediately after Cain's demise. At this point, Gingrich became the subject of a massive well-funded negative campaign by Romney's Super PAC (Restore Our Future PAC). This onslaught drove his poll numbers down decisively and immediately. He has stayed in the race, but has never had quite the same standing in the polls.
With Gingrich's demise, Rick Santorum's numbers shot up. He has been the lead NotRomney candidate ever since. At this point, Romney's Super PAC has taken on Santorum in a series of states, outspending him massively. In one state after another a well-funded negative campaign shot him down. This happened in Michigan and Arizona, then Ohio. It is currently happening in Wisconsin. The results of this are clearly evident. After Santorum began to close in on Romney in Arizona, Romney unleashed an unanswered media attack. Romney won decisively. Similarly, in Michigan, Santorum actually had a lead. It disappeared after a similar media assault. The effect of the negative campaign in Arizona and Michigan is evidenced by Santorum's dramatic drop in these two states at a time when he actually led Romney in several national polls (Romney's PAC attack on Santorum had been restricted to Michigan and Arizona). Much the same happened in Ohio.
Over $35 million of the Romney Super PAC advertising was negative in character: designed to destroy his opposition. Only about $1.1 million could be construed to be positive or pro-Romney in character. And it is clear that these attacks work: in those states that the media attacks were most intense, Romney's relative standing in the polls improved dramatically (and in contrast to his contemporaneous standing in national polls).
The efficacy of these big money attacks is not without limit. Santorum still carried several bible-belt states where his religious appeal could not be countermanded by media. So Santorum carried Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Nonetheless, though not universal, the efficacy of big dollar negative advertising has clearly sufficient to propel Romney to a nearly inevitable nomination.
There have been other effects of these Super PACs. In any other campaign, Gingrich would have been out of the race by now, since his demise would have caused his fundraising to dry up. But in this post-Citizens United world you no longer need to be bolstered by thousands of individual contributions; you need only the support of a single billionaire. Gingrich's billionaire is a Las Vegas casino owner, Sheldon Adelson.
Santorum's fate at this point seems to be largely in the hands of his own billionaire, Foster Friess. If Friess is willing to pony up additional millions, Santorum can continue. If Friess pulls out, Santorum will likely be crippled.
Ron Paul, the only other surviving candidate, has his own sugar daddy, San Francisco entrepreneur Peter Thiel.
Prior to the Citizens United Supreme Court case, all of these candidates had to rely on the largesse of thousands of individual contributors. And that had a certain democratic flavor to it. Since Citizens United, however, the continued viability of a candidate is only contingent upon the support of a single billionaire. Any candidate can continue in the race as long as their respective sugar daddies write checks. And not a day longer.
Could one of these candidates (or another candidate) have given Romney a real run for his (backers') money had one of their respective sugar daddies been willing to pony up comparable dollars? We will never know.
Neither money in politics nor negative campaigns are new. But the size of the monetary stockpiles is unprecedented. And having these negative campaigns run by supposedly independent third parties has enabled the candidates to disavow ownership and responsibility for them. And since these "independent" campaigns are destined to get the lions' share of the funding, they will define the shape of our politics for the foreseeable future.
For years, the citizens lament has been that "We have the best politicians money can buy." Citizens United has institutionalized this belief. And this is the shape of politics to come.
Of course, we have yet to see this play out in a general election for president. It may be that relatively equal resources may mask the impact of large contributions in the general presidential election. But the lack of accountability of "independent" campaigns spending the bulk of campaign resources cannot be a positive development and is likely to make campaigns increasingly negative. And the fact that that strategy has worked so well for Mitt Romney in the primaries will not go unnoticed.
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