THE BLOG
04/18/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

2012 Election: Citizens United vs. Citizens Uniting

A tectonic collision is in store for the 2012 election, as unlimited campaign money enabled by Citizens United competes with super-charged online grassroots democracy. The stakes couldn't be greater -- an Obama victory would further demonstrate that the Internet has shifted power to common citizens, while a super PAC-fueled Romney win would reinforce big money's enduring influence in our system.

In 2010, dissenting Justice Stevens warned that the 5-4 Citizens United decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation." We're reminded of his prediction on nearly a daily basis. On Friday, T.W. Farnam reported in the Washington Post that an anonymous donor, whose identity is likely to remain a permanent mystery, gave $10 million late last year to Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS super PAC. Farnam also reported that 90% of Crossroads' $76 million in donations had come from as few as two dozen donors, and that the group hopes to spend $300 million in the 2012 election cycle. Further, Nicholas Confessore wrote in the New York Times Monday that the Romney campaign and the Romney Victory fund hope to raise $500 million in high-dollar donations (as well as $200 million from other donors). And, Kenneth Vogel wrote Monday in Politico that GOP mega-donors such as Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and other ultra-wealthy conservative donors who fought Romney in the primaries are now lining up to fund super PACs working on his behalf.

Romney was able to prevail in the GOP primary despite his unpopularity among much of the party base and his relative lack of grassroots support. By dramatically outspending his opponents -- Santorum by over a 5 to 1 margin and Gingrich by a 3.5 to 1 margin -- Romney demonstrated the continuing ability for money to overcome passion.

While experts expect the Obama campaign to raise over $1 billion, much more of this will come from small dollar contributions from ordinary citizens. In 2008, over $500 million of Obama's $750 million was raised online from over 3 million donors. This trend is continuing. In March 2012, 567,000 people contributed an average of just $50.78 to the campaign. To date for the 2012 cycle, 53% Obama's contributions are under $200, while only 20% are the maximum $2,500. Conversely, only 12% of Romney's contributions are under $200 while 58% are the maximum. And while President Obama felt the need to drop his opposition to super PACs in February 2012, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA has only two $1 million plus donors -- Bill Maher ($1 million) and Jeffrey Katzenberg ($2 million), and has raised a total of under $6.5 million from 235 donors.

At the same time, common citizens using online organizing tools including Change.org and Meetup, and spreading word through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networks are having a dramatic impact on the political landscape and are serving as effective corporate watchdogs. Movements that formerly took years to build (if they happened at all) can now emerge and succeed in hours or days.

The Occupy movement has changed the national dialogue about inequality, helping create what will likely be the biggest line of attack against Romney and the GOP -- that they're the party of the 1% who are protecting the interests of the wealthy. The Senate GOP blocking the Buffett Rule Monday is yet one more example supporting this narrative.

Corporations, which have long been able to keep regulators in check and win favor from elected officials through deep pocketed External Affairs operations, now have to contend with online consumer movements. Empowered citizens have forced Bank of America, Netflix, Apple and even the Susan G. Komen Foundation to quickly change policies amid online firestorms.

Industry coalitions are also under attack. In the anti-SOPA/PIPA effort, the grassroots tech community (albeit with funding from deep pockets such as Google) stopped legislation that had been fast-tracked by the juggernaut MPAA led by former Senator Chris Dodd, who described the opposition he faced a "watershed moment" unlike anything he had seen in three decades of public office.

Recently Coke, Pepsi, Kraft, McDonald's, Wendy's, Mars and Intuit quickly dropped their support for ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, rather than face online advocacy. (See Nancy Scola's smart ALEC summary in The Atlantic.) The speed by which Color of Change and other groups were able to get major corporations to cease funding this unknown industry coalition suggests that other industry coalitions and their members, and even the U.S. Chamber, could also be vulnerable to similar citizen movements.

Of course the lines for the 2012 election aren't completely black and white. Obama has big donors who have more influence than the grassroots would like, and if you search hard enough you might find people on the right who are passionate about Romney. Nonetheless, the 2012 election will be a great testing ground to see which is more powerful, grassroots online organizing or big money.

Should big money prevail and elect Romney, we'll surely see continued and increased infusions of money corrupting the political process in future elections. An Obama reelection, on the other hand, will show the limits of unbridled spending by corporations and the ultra-wealthy, and will reinforce the power of grassroots online organizing. Either way, a great first campaign for the grassroots to undertake following the election would be a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?