It's a refrain we've heard since the post-Watergate era: time to get the money out of politics. Back in the 1970s, the Supreme Court allowed limits on political contributions to candidates but declared overall spending limits unconstitutional. Political action committees were allowed to form and wealthy candidates could self-finance. This year, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that restrictions on outside corporate donations were also an unconstitutional limit on free speech.
So the courts have found campaign spending legal. What's more, some of us even think it's good for democracy. Citizens should be able to spend as much money as they would like to advocate for an idea and to elect a candidate who agrees with that idea.
If you think the biggest problem in politics is out-of-touch career politicians—as many voters in the midterm elections clearly did—then you should be in favor of unlimited campaign spending. This year, the open "floodgates" of unlimited outside spending, so derided by the president, served as a new form of term limits. They eliminated long-term incumbency and the entrenched entitlement attitude that often goes with it.
In the past, Democrats used outside spending to their advantage. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, independent 527 groups spent $667 million for Democrats and only $242 million for Republican candidates. These Democratic-leaning groups were mostly unions pushing turnout among the base rather than running issue-advocacy spots to win over independents and the undecided.
That started to change this year. Even before Citizens United, conservative groups began to step in and make a play for independents. In this year's Massachusetts Senate race for the late Ted Kennedy's seat, one political advertising executive told me, "There were 14 outside advertisers, but only two names on the ballot." One of those was the surprise winner, Republican Scott Brown, who won the decisive support of independents, despite being outspent by outside left-leaning groups in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
This fall, Republicans were still outspent by Democratic candidates in individual competitive races. The New York Times reported that Democrats outspent their opponents in the most competitive races over the last few months, $119 million to $79 million. What's changed is that Republican-leaning outside groups have caught up, spending more than $60 million since July, about 80 percent more than did Democratic-leaning groups.
The vast majority of this year's competitive Democratic candidates were incumbents, and many went into their races with huge war chests accumulated over previous election cycles. Incumbents typically are able to fund three to four weeks' worth of advertising before their challengers raise enough to start running ads. In that precious time, incumbents are able to reframe their image, reminding voters of all the good they've done locally (translation: all the earmarks they've brought home) and attacking their challengers before the new guy can even introduce himself to voters.
This year, instead, outside groups jumped in early, making what essentially were bridge loans to challengers through ads that allowed voters to learn about incumbents' voting records on bailouts, stimulus spending, and healthcare reform. The outside advertising acted as a counterweight to incumbents trying to localize the election, and challengers were able to keep the debate on a national level about the direction of our country and the importance of job creation—issues important to independents. The outside groups wiped out the incumbent advantage.
Conservatives who had skipped the 2008 race came back in droves this year, bringing an unprecedented amount of outside money for their side. This time, liberal outside groups sat on their wallets, unhappy with the Democratic leadership for not going further on "don't ask, don't tell," for dropping the public option during the healthcare debate, and for not moving quickly enough on cap-and-trade and comprehensive immigration reform. One of the biggest left-leaning PACs, MoveOn.org, for example, spent only $21 million, down from $38 million in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.