Election 2012’s biggest loser: Citizens United

If you were following the polls in the weeks leading up to last night’s election, things mostly went as planned. No big surprises. But if you rewind to the beginning of this whole campaign cycle—or further, back to 2010, there was one surprise upset that no one who was paying attention then coud have predicted: the total failure of unlimited spending allowed by Citizens United to have any impact on the election.

When the Supreme Court announced that anonymous and unlimited political spending was fair game with the Citizens United decision in 2010 anyone paying much attention pretty much declared democracy over. To call the reaction among politically concerned people alarmist would be an understatement. It was widely speculated that the new rules would give Romney an unfair advantage since he’s friends with lots of super-rich people. And they came forward, with guys like casino owner Sheldon Adelson pledging to donate at least $100 million to the Romney effort but saying he’d spend whatever it took to get him elected. As early as 2010 this was a major “oh shit” for Democrats.

2012 quickly turned into the most expensive race ever—each side raised about $1 billion in regular campaign funds and untold billions we’ll never know about through the newly minted SuperPACs made possible by Citizens United. But a strange thing happened: even though it’s likely Romney’s campaign raised way more trough people like Adleson, it didn’t matter. In fact every candidate Adelson backed lost with the exception of Allen West, whose race is still too close to call and who may well lose.

The wealth gap in this country is so staggering it really seemed like the top dogs like Adelson, left to spend secretly at will, would have no problem unleashing a mind-melting media blitz so devastating that Romney would be guaranteed a victory. In the end 39% of Obama’s campaign money came from small donations under $200 whereas only 15% of Romney’s did. And not only did the strategy of a few rich donors over the masses of small donors not work in the presidential election, it didn’t work anywhere.

Usually when a party or an idea loses big in an election, it’s seen as a rejection that forces a change for the next one. If Citizens United doesn’t get overturned hopefully the lesson here is that we’ll stop spending billions trying to advertise each other into submission and spend that cash on more productive things in the future.