/ 22 April 2024

The impact of Citizens United on American democracy and campaign finance

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Martin Luther King Recreation Centre on April 18, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

In 2010, the supreme court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission reshaped the landscape of American political financing. This decision, which granted corporations and donors unlimited spending rights in federal elections, unleashed a torrent of money into political campaigns. 

The five to four decision rested on the belief that transparency through disclosure would serve as a safeguard against corruption. But the aftermath of Citizens United gave birth to a proliferation of political action committees, these super PACs and “dark-money” groups, shielded from disclosing their donors. This flood of untraceable funds catalysed a seismic shift in campaign finance dynamics. 

During the 2008 presidential race, dark-money groups contributed a mere $25 million, but following the Citizens United case, their spending ballooned sevenfold. As the US grapples with the repercussions of this, questions persist about the integrity of America’s electoral process and the undue influence wielded by those donating the untraceable money. In the ongoing battle for transparency and accountability, the legacy of Citizens United continues to shape the contours of American democracy.

The battleground of campaign finance has erupted into a protracted conflict, with no resolution in sight. While the landmark Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates for big-money interests to inundate the political arena, it also catalysed a grassroots fundraising surge. 

In the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump used $66 million of his personal funds in his bid against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Both candidates amassed colossal war chests, although Clinton maintained a slight edge in small-dollar donations, underscoring the power of grassroots support. As the battle rages on, the clash between big-money interests and grassroots mobilisation has become a defining feature of contemporary American democracy. 

Political campaigns are fuelled by a cacophony of elements — television ads, logos, stickers, rallies and the indispensable army of staffers. Each component requires financial resources. Media advertising, in particular, commands a significant share of campaign expenditures. As political contenders vie for attention in a crowded marketplace, the competition escalates, driving up costs and intensifying fundraising efforts. 

Ultimately, the currency of politics lies not just in ideas, but in the ability to mobilise resources and disseminate one’s narrative to the electorate. In the current presidential campaign, the American political landscape has seen a resurgence of financial vigour. Trump and the Republican National Committee have unveiled a staggering haul of $65.6 million raised last month alone. This windfall catapults the former president’s war chest to $93.1 million as of April, marking a twofold increase from the preceding month. 

Notably, Trump’s fundraising prowess in March surpassed his previous cycle’s figures, depicting his enduring appeal to donors. 

The numbers tell the story. President Joe Biden’s reelection bid has shattered records, amassing more than $192 million by March 31, marking the highest ever sum for a Democratic candidate. His reelection campaign, coupled with the Democratic National Committee, recently announced a haul of over $90 million in March alone. This financial prowess has further cemented Biden’s commanding lead over Trump. 

The Biden camp’s fundraising prowess was underscored by an impressive statistic: 96% of all donations received were less than $200, showing broad grassroots support. Notably, a star-studded event at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan featuring luminaries such as former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton yielded an additional $26 million-plus.

The rate of donations to Biden’s campaign has enabled a huge digital and TV advertising campaign in crucial states, alongside enhanced collaboration with the Democratic National Committee and state parties to galvanise potential supporters ahead of the November election. With 1.6 million donors since announcing his candidacy in April 2023, the momentum is palpable. Biden’s impressive war chest defies conventional metrics, reflecting widespread enthusiasm despite lukewarm approval ratings. 

In contrast, Trump, embroiled in multiple legal battles, reported $65.5 million raised, with $93.1 million in reserves. Despite Trump’s formidable financial prowess in 2020, current indications suggest a less robust campaign. Yet, Trump’s camp appears confident, emphasising sufficiency over supremacy in fundraising. 

But this financial juggernaut reflects a blatant contradiction in American politics, where almost all the surveys and opinion polls are indicating a downward spiral of approval rating for Biden — particularly because of his policy on Israel’s war on Gaza. The business community and “NeverTrumpers” — who are scared of the possible return of Trump into the Oval Office — are probably feeling that the only way to stop Trump is by launching a fierce media campaign for which they are doling out money. 

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He is a physician and has a master’s degree in international relations.