Super Connected

Outside Groups’ Devotion to Individual Candidates and Political Parties Disproves the Supreme Court’s Key Assumption in Citizens United That Unregulated Outside Spenders Would Be ‘Independent’

By Taylor Lincoln

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I. Introduction and Top Level Data Findings

Nearly half of the unregulated outside groups that sought to influence the 2012 elections spent their money to aid just one candidate. These single-candidate groups accounted for more than one-third of spending by unregulated groups in 2010. [See Figure 1] Many of these groups were operated by individuals with close ties to the candidate they assisted.

Ten additional groups, which accounted for nearly 30 percent of spending by unregulated entities in the 2012 elections, existed to aid either the official Democratic or Republican parties. Their personnel largely hailed from the national parties’ hierarchies or the staffs oflawmakers in the congressional leadership. In most cases, these groups declared missions of helping to elect Democrats or Republicans. As such, these groups were much more closely tied to the parties than longstanding interest groups that provided exclusive support a single party.

In total, candidate-specific and party-allied groups accounted for more than 65 percent of all spending by unregulated outside groups in the 2012 elections. Such groups made up seven of the top eight unregulated outside spenders in 2012. [See Figure 2]

Figure 1: Electioneering Spending by All Unregulated Groups (2012 Election Cycle)

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Number of Groups Spending Over $100,000

page6image1541371968 page6image1543451920page6image1543438960

Pct. of Groups

page6image1543444208page6image1541363744 page6image1543436816page6image1543445920

Pct. of Money Spent

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page6image1541366560

Description of Group

page6image1541367776 page6image1543466160

Amount Spent

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Dedicated to a single candidate

112

49.3%

$353,686,625

36.5%

Determined by Public Citizen to be allied with a national party

10

4.4%

$280,566,533

29.0%

Subtotal: Single candidate or party allied

122

53.7%

$634,253,158

65.5%

Aided multiple candidates and not designated as party allied

105

46.3%

$333,582,201

34.5%

All Unregulated Outside Groups

227

100.0%

page6image1543127472

$967,835,359

100.0%

Source: Public Citizen analysis of data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org).

Figure 2: Top 10 Spending Unregulated Groups (2012 Election Cycle)

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Group’s LegalStatus

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Single-Candidate/ Party-Allied/Other

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Group

page7image1642750880 page7image1642751680

Amount Spent

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Candidate Supported

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Restore Our Future

$142,655,218

Super PAC

Single-candidate

Mitt Romney

American Crossroads

$104,772,098

Super PAC

Party-allied

Republicans

Priorities USA Action

$66,182,126

Super PAC

Single-candidate

Barack Obama

Crossroads GPS

$70,940,377

501(c)

Party-allied

Republicans

Americans for Prosperity

$39,448,456

501(c)

Single-candidate

Mitt Romney

Majority PAC

$37,536,489

Super PAC

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Party-allied

Democrats

page7image1643054880

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

$36,177,665

501(c)

Other

Republicans

House Majority PAC

$30,761,234

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Super PAC

page7image1571877744

Party-allied

Democrats

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American Future Fund

$25,587,431

501(c)

Other

Republicans

Club for Growth Action

$20,382,571

page7image1541352192page7image1541355520

Super Pac

Other

page7image1541356496page7image1541355120

Republicans

Source: Public Citizen analysis of data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org).

These findings undercut the key premise relied upon by the Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which paved the way for outside groups to use unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations or unions to influence elections.1

The court based its Citizens United decision on its assumption that the new electioneering spending it permitted would be by organizations that acted independently of candidates and parties. The court concluded that independent expenditures do not threaten to engender corruption, which is the basis on which the court has traditionally permitted regulation of campaign expenditures. Thus, the court ruled, independent expenditures cannot be regulated without violating the First Amendment.

 

“Limits on independent expenditures have a chilling effect extending well beyond theGovernment’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption,”2 the court wrote in Citizens United. “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made bycorporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”3

But reality has not comported with the court’s vision. Many of the outside groups that have availed themselves of permissions flowing from Citizens United cannot plausibly be deemed independent. In the 2012 elections, many groups’ absence of independence was shown by a variety of factors besides their decisions to devote their resources to aiding a single candidate or party.

Other factors, depending on the group, included the existence of close professionalrelationships between the groups’ principals and the candidates or parties they aided; statements by the groups indicating a mission to aid a specific candidate, party, or subset of a party; the transfer of personnel from campaigns to outside groups aiding the same campaigns; the provision of fundraising assistance by candidates, campaign officials or party leaders to outside groups serving their agendas; high-ranking party officials making themselves available to donors in exchange for large contributions to their allied outside groups; endorsements by candidates or their campaigns of outside groups aiding them; and acknowledgements by candidates or party leaders that they countenanced the establishment of unregulated groups aiding them.

The emergence of entities using unlimited contributions to aid candidates and parties with which they have close relationships threatens to gut the anticorruption policy underlying campaign finance laws, which the court claimed it did not intend to weaken.

The Citizens United decision left intact—and even appeared to endorsed the thrust of—thecourt’s precedents of upholding laws that limit direct contributions to candidates and the national parties. The court has long permitted such limits on the basis that unlimited direct contributions pose an unacceptable risk of causing corruption.

But in cases in which close relationships exist between the leaders of unregulated groups and the candidates or parties they serve, the unregulated groups essentially constitute extensions of official candidate and party committees. Unlimited contributions to such groups are tantamount to direct contributions, thereby evading contribution limit laws.