Campaign Finance

Obama's False Alarm on Corporate Electioneering

Understanding the president's attacks on Citizens United


At a campaign rally the other day, President Barack Obama decried those who say "you can't overcome the cynicism of politics; no, you can't overcome the special interests; no, you can't overcome the big money; no, you can't overcome the negative ads."

The president emphatically disagrees. But here's the odd thing: The only people you hear taking that view are in the White House.

It's been their lament since the Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations have a constitutional right to spend money communicating their views about candidates running for office. "I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest," Obama declared. All this spending, said presidential adviser David Axelrod, "is a threat to our democracy."

Lately, they are particularly alarmed that foreign money may be going to conservative groups that run anti-Democratic ads. Axelrod thinks it is vital for the names of such donors to be disclosed. CBS' Bob Schieffer asked, "Do you have any evidence that it's anything other than peanuts?" Axelrod replied, in a heroic display of chutzpah, "Well, do you have any evidence that it's not, Bob?" Guilty until proven innocent: a new concept.

But the president is right in believing that if people reject the agenda of the corporations that are spending money in this election, they can vote against it—and win. Americans are about as likely to vote for every candidate a corporation favors as they are to buy every product a corporation advertises.

It's not as though Mammoth Amalgamated Corp. or China World Takeover Inc. is going out and paying citizens to cast Republican ballots. It's not even as though corporations, foreign or domestic, are trying to buy off politicians with direct campaign contributions—which remain illegal.

All they can do is finance broadcast spots or newspaper ads with messages intended to sway voters. As more than half of all political candidates discover every election year, such efforts often fail. Unless the ads make a case that is persuasive and believable to a majority of voters, they are wasted.

Most corporate executives seem to understand as much and choose not to bother. When the Supreme Court decision came down, critics predicted a tidal wave of corporate spending on elections. What they overlooked is that in about half the states, such outlays were already allowed, without that dire consequence.

All the evidence indicates that corporate electioneering makes no difference in election outcomes or legislation. John Coleman, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, examined the period 2000-2008 and found that states permitting such spending were no more likely to have Republican legislatures, business-friendly regulatory policies, or low business costs.

What can we conclude from this experience? Either businesses don't spend enough money to get their way or haven't found ways to sell their message. In any case, it's hard to see how their spending can be "devastating to the public interest" when its effects are all but undetectable.

The main reason for its futility is that there are lots of voices out there trying to influence how Americans vote. This year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups (not counting party committees) have spent about $225 million on electioneering—which comes to a grand total of $1 for every American of voting age.

That sum is less than all the contenders have laid out in a single race—for governor of California. In 2008, candidates for the U.S. Senate and House raised a total of $1.4 billion, and that number will undoubtedly be higher this year. In addition, there are countless TV commentators, editorial writers, radio talk-show hosts, and bloggers weighing in on these races.    

In the end, though, none of them gets to decide the winners. It's the voters who hold the ultimate power.

That's why comprehensive disclosure of who's contributing to independent groups is less than crucial. The lack of such information doesn't keep voters from evaluating each ad in light of the other information they have on the subject. If you hear someone on the radio say that 2 + 2 = 5, you don't need to know who bought the spot to decide whether to believe it.    

The administration thinks that Americans cannot possibly sort out truth and error in a wide-open clash of ideas. But all the evidence confirms: Yes, we can.


NEXT: Selling Food to Cuba

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  1. I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest

    Really? I can think of several off the top of my head, like fighting undeclared wars, the war on drugs, an unaccountable central bank that can inflate our currency at will, a federal government that claims the power to imprison people without charges for indefinite periods, and the list goes on…


  2. “Guilty until proven innocent: a new concept.”

    Unless you are not beholden to American political philosophy, then it is a very old concept.

    1. But, then again,an administration that views free speech with such hyperbolic alarm is not exactly beholden to American ideals in the first place.

      “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” ~Potter Stewart

      1. When Obama took the phrase “negative rights” and made it SOUND negative, that is the moment when *everyone* should have realized why putting him in office was a huge mistake.

  3. “In the end, though, none of them gets to decide the winners. It’s the voters who hold the ultimate power.”

    An inconvenient truth.

    1. That’s bullshit. You only get to decide on the assholes that the two parties pick. Look at the choices for President since 2000.

      1. I feel your self-pitying pain. A necessarily limited choice, arrived at through a long, time-consuming, winnowing process that gradually eliminates all the prospective candidates who have garnered little or no popular support, leaving only the viable ones on the ballot, but, after all that, still giving the electorate the option of writing in the candidate of their choice, is still not good enough for you, TT? Sounds to me like you have a problem with the concept of representational government. The people pick the candidates. Besides, just about anyone can call himself a Democrat or a Republican while retaining independence of thought.

        1. “Sounds to me like you have a problem with the concept of representational government.” When the ones voting are fucking idiots…I do have a problem. How do you think we got in this shit situation?

          1. You have a beef with the culture at large. The electorate is composed entirely of “fucking idiots”? It’s a pity that there are not more brilliant libertarians (like you?) in America. But let’s face it: in addition to the marketplace of goods and services, there is the marketplace of ideas, and libertarians have failed (with a few notable successes) to effectively compete with the nation’s statists and traditionalists. So blaming the culture is well and good if you want to spend your time lamenting a world you did not make.

            1. “It’s a pity that there are not more brilliant libertarians (like you?) in America.” Well at least you’re right about that!

              1. I agree with Truth Teller.

          2. But I enjoy having a choice between a Giant Douche and a Shit Sandwich. That’s democracy!

            1. Would that sandwich be a Filet-o-shit?

              1. Why…yes it would!

        2. “Popular support?” Really? When a handful extremists and/or party hacks in both parties are the ones who generally decide the primaries? We really don’t get the leaders most of us want or respect. On the bright side most of us don’t care because politicians still don’t affect most of our daily lives very much. Let’s hope it stays that way.

  4. “China World Takeover Inc. 2012!”

  5. Voters are the biggest threat to a democracy.

    1. Voters weren’t fearful in 2008 when the economic meltdown occurred on Wall St. and I shot ahead of McCain in the polls and on to the presidency. Today the voters are fearful because they’re racist bigots since finding out that I’m the son of a black man.

    2. Not quite. Voters are the biggest threat to democracy wen the bums being thrown out are Democrats.

  6. I used to think Obama was one of those ivory tower academics that don’t “get” the real world. Now I just think he’s a dumbass.

    1. Lots easier to make the case that he’s a moron than to string together evidence that he’s a crypto Marxist tool with a Utopian ‘progressive’ agenda. . .

      1. string together evidence that he’s a crypto Marxist tool with a Utopian ‘progressive’ agenda

        Not hard, really, when you recall that Marxists inevitably metamorphose into authoritarian kleptocrats.

        When the assertion that he is a hard-left progressive is challenged, the evidence put forward is usually that Wall Street and Big Banking have made out like bandits, as if that is inconsistent with what a Marxoid kleptocrat would do.

        It isn’t. He is merely preparing his featherbed after his exit from the White House.

        1. “as if that is inconsistent with what a Marxoid kleptocrat would do.”

          No, it is inconsistent. Obama is not a Marxist, it’s just a silly argument.

          1. Obama may not be a Marxist, but he’s working on it. It’s a steep learning curve.

      1. Yeah, he is kind of a floor wax and a desert topping.

      2. Yeah I thought the two went hand-in-hand.

      3. He is a foul fish.

  7. “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest,” Obama declared. All this spending, said presidential adviser David Axelrod, “is a threat to our democracy.”


    “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest my agenda,” Obama declared. All this spending, said presidential adviser David Axelrod, “is a threat to our democracy Democratic Party rule.”

    Obama is basically saying its hard to make a blacklist of who needs to be smeared and intimidated if he don’t have the names.

    1. Who needs names when you can assert, without any proof, that “scary foreigners” (the same nefarious kingpins and capitalists that Republicans are “shipping” our jobs to) are “buying” all the local elections that Democrats just happen to be losing? It’s classic scapegoating, but in such a vague and incompetent way as to be comically impotent.

      1. I’m not completely sure but I think your handle is racist.

        1. No, I’m the racist…

      2. Impotent to us “non-believers”. The “the corporate world is the biggest threat to our way of life” meme is every bit as powerful as the “they hate for our freedoms” propaganda was to the conservatardtastics who re-elected Bush.

        1. According to the polls, which are never wrong, the strategy is failing across all party and independent lines. Even dyed-in-the-wool lefty sycophants are calling the strategy a Hail Mary.

          1. With the polls saying that the “car in the ditch” thing is really catching on, Mr Obama continues to get all muddy trying to push the car out of the ditch. I’m slurping my Slurpee waiting for him to ask for my help. Brilliant focus group work.

      3. Don’t forget the fat-cats!!

      4. No proof? So you’re telling me that what I’ve being told, on TV and radio of all places, isn’t the true? Oh my God! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

  8. But if we don’t have full disclosure as to who is funding these independent expenditures, we can’t use ad-hominem attacks to discredit them!

    1. “ad-hominem attacks”, yeah, right,if only there WERE only “ad-hominem attacks”, instead of IRS audits, and every other ABC govt agency audit.

  9. The thing that torques me off about this particular meme is the basic insult that underlays it. The “Americans are stupid and easily convinced by anything that comes on the magic picture box,” line of thought.

    The President apparently believes that I am incapable of coming to my own conclusions based on my reason and beliefs and must be protected from commercials for my own good.

    1. This.

      Just ban political ads entirely — that’s *real* campaign finance reform.

      Nice handle, btw.

    2. Obviously if you don’t come to the same conclusions as an enlightened academic like Obama you’re just a fearful bitter clinger who doesn’t understand the science baking his arguments.

      1. Love the “science baking his arguments” part.

    3. Help me, Obama! Just yesterday, during the football game, I was tricked into buying three trucks, 25 smart phones and an entire brewery.

    4. “The “Americans are stupid and easily convinced by anything that comes on the magic picture box,” line of thought.”
      It got me elected!

      1. I blame Oprah.

        1. Oh. Must see tv. Obama “tells all” on her couch. Sniff, sniff. To be followed by a porn star.

        2. That’s what I said.

    5. Just spend some time over at Huff Po and you’ll wonder even more about this thought. It seems to me, Liberals insult the intelligence and more of their core base all the time and get away with it. It always seems like each individual says “well I’m smart enough, I don’t need to live on the government dole, I’m just looking our for everyone else”. They all should wear one of those “I’m with stupid” t-shirts that points to the next guy.

      1. Nice observation.

  10. Just ban political ads entirely — that’s *real* campaign finance reform.

    Except the bulk of the evidence indicates that political ads have more policy information content than the media.

    1. I’m being (somewhat) facetious.

      Since high-speed internet access is apparently gonna be a right soon, I’d say to the candidates: “Hey, knock yourself out with a killer website.”

  11. Barack is a fucking idiot!

    1. Michelle honey, recently you were referring to him as “my Barack”.

  12. From the tease –

    Steve Chapman explains why Obama has nothing to worry about.

    Hmm, Steve seems to have skipped over Skippy’s wonderful sense of timing, in reminding everyone about the foreign contributor bogeyman, just in time to have his team to lose what little control they have of the legislative branch, the lower house of which being exactly the folks that might look into a candidate for the executive top spot blatantly turning off the features on his campaign website that then allowed unchecked foreign donations, in direct violation of clear and existing campaign finance regulations. . .Smooth move there, Skipster!

  13. I argue constantly about this on bookface with a couple of people who whine about how unfair it is that the GOP is getting so much more outside spending than the Dems. When I point out that in 2006 and 2008 the Dems got more outside money they tell me that was different. Then they go on and on about how corporations are buying the election to which I keep reminding them they are just buying ads and ads don’t guarantee victory. All they can do is provide information. Their response is if ads didn’t work no one would advertise. I usually end with the line if the American public is stupid enough to vote against its own interest just because one candidate had 10% more ads then we are all doomed anyway so what is the point of having any rules at all.

    1. But Republicans aren’t spending more than Democrats.

    2. “Their response is if ads didn’t work no one would advertise.”

      That’s a specious statement they make. I bet they don’t own a business.

    3. But it’s OKAY when WE do it, JohnE.

  14. Funny how the Dems don’t have a problem with unions giving millions. Or Soros. And wasn’t there a rumour that there was a lot of Chinese money funding Clinton and Obama?

    1. Al Gore, to the Buddhist monestary no controlling legal authority courtesy phone!

  15. If you hear someone on the radio say that 2 + 2 = 5, you don’t need to know who bought the spot to decide whether to believe it.

    That’s not true. If you’re a typical liberal and it’s Krugnuts who is saying 2 + 2 = 5, then it must be true because Krugnuts received a Nobel Prize.
    The typical liberal evaluates ideas on the source, not with their own mind.

    Now if it was Limpbough who said 2 + 2 = 5, the typical liberal will assume that his dittoheads will believe it.
    Except that they won’t because dittoheads, contrary to what their name implies, are more likely evaluate ideas with their mind than judge them by the source.

    1. 2+2=5 when you factor in The One.

  16. http://www.cognitivepolicywork…..come-from/

    Gee. I did not realize that. Where’s my banjo?

  17. The link sends you to the cognitive policy site explaining where anti-government ideas come from.


    1. Where do pro-government ideas come from?

      What is more simple minded than the belief that one-size-fits-every-possible-situation legislation and regulation backed up with threat of violence is the solution to every possible problem we might face?

    2. First of all, anti-government is not the same thing as limited government.

      Second of all, the function of legislation and regulation is to substitute the ideas of the legislator or regulator for the ideas of millions of individuals.

      The serve to tell people how to engineer contracts, what they may or may not eat, and even what system of morality they may choose.

      The modern liberal is the enemy of freedom, and those who you describe as anti-government are in fact pro-freedom.

      They want to eat the food of their choosing, not what you tell them to eat.
      They want to fry with lard, smoke cigarettes and own guns.

      You, the one who wants to outsource your cognitive facilities to government lawyers are the one in need of a banjo.


      1. Wo, wo, WO, camel!

        I’m ON YOUR SIDE! I’ve been commenting on Reason for a while. I made the mistake of being “known” here.

        I linked that article because it was a sad, puerile attempt.

        I made the banjo reference because liberals tend to characterize anyone who doesn’t think like their “statist disguising as progress” position.

        1. “mistake of thinking of being known.”


          1. I got what you were aiming for, Rufus. And, indeed, there is a sad, pitiful website at the end of the link you provided. Thanks for the heads-up.

            1. Ah, faith restored.

              It was indeed a public sevice announcement.

  18. When the Daily Beast starts piling on Obama’s party for this, you know the rats are abandoning ship.


  19. I guess I’m not getting my foreign bribe to vote Republican then, seeing as how I early-voted straight Libertarian this past Saturday.

    1. I would do that too, but damned if a lot of the Libertarian candidates aren’t complete morons (I say as I accept my foreign bribe to vote Republican).

      1. I’ll take a Libertarian moron over these Republican wackos like Angle, O’Donnell and Paladino the Tea Party are putting out any day. Go listen to Rush Limbaugh with the rest of the kool-aid drinkers.

  20. Why do people, both conservatives and liberals, buy into Obama’s facile anti-corporate rhetoric and treat it as if it’s something more than campaign mode talking-points? Do you think he’s really trying to fight electioneering with electionering? Seriously people, start reading between the lines.

    The economy was handed over in its entirety to big business during the Clinton administration. Any residual anti-corporate rhetoric is just for just and an attempt to stir up the democratic base. If they don’t believe Obama’s rhetoric, why would Steve Chapman? Because he likes to play the game. Corporate electioneering is really irrelevant not so much because it doesn’t work but because no matter who’s in office, democrat or republican, corporations win.

    In fact,the politicians corporations really fear is someone like Ron Paul, who called Obama a “corporatist,” who lets corporations “run the country.” The US Chamber of Commerce, whom the people at Reason are wont to passionately defend from the supposedly anti-business rhetoric of Obama, has given the Ron Paul the LOWEST rating of any congressman in terms of being pro-business. Do you not see the irony of rushing to defend an entity that is not too happy with your libertarian demagogue? The Chamber of Commerce is not happy with Paul because he did not vote for what they perceive to be a PRO-business stimulus, Obama’s pro-business stimulus package mind you.

    And how often does Ron Paul talk about defending US sovereignty and even withdrawing from the WTO? Ron Paul is decidedly against the corporate, both foreign and American (who can really tell the difference?) run world order. You would never dare call him xenophobic though would you?

    You probably didn’t even notice such ironies because you’re too busy playing politics, or using Obama’s facile attempts to stir up his base to stir up yours.

    Its simply business as usual. Yawn…

  21. I don’t know… there’s still something appealing about everyone knowing who is backing whom in politics. Arguing that it’s not absolutely necessary to have openness about this seems a bit disingenuous.

  22. I think it deserves mention that the “corporation” that won a case for free speech in court was not “Big Business” in any sense, but simply a group of citizens that wanted to say something. Whether or not we agree with them is irrelevant: if free speech doesn’t include speaking as a group, it is hardly free.

  23. Yeah, its weird how hardcore collectivists/communitarians go all “individuals-only” when it comes to speech.

  24. TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT?..TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets?..Wake up america!!!! This goverment is the most corrupt we have had in years. The good old boy network is very much in charge.Mr. obama and pelosi are the puppet masters.How many of their good friends benefited by the agreement ” what a farce. All of the u.sSenators voted for this. I am ashamed to say I voted for the these corupted self serving politicians.With good reason they picked an out of towner to be president.All u.s departments need an overhaul. We need to rid ourselves of the puppet masters and the dept heads that bow down to obama and pelosi.I am sick of the lip service I have been getting from these dummies over violations, their friends are getting away the goverment . Barack Hussein Obama , threatens friends and bows to Mmslim.
    INPEACH OBAMA ,GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.///For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.THE COMMANDER.
    OBAMA goes about his business by speaking the lie. II Thessalonians 2 says that he comes “with all deceivableness of unrighteousness.” Revelation 13:12 says, “and he spoke as a dragon….” Revelation 17 tells us that he was a false prophet, a prophet being one whose calling it is to speak and to teach. The armies of the world may have guns and tanks and bombs to bring people into submission; but the power of speech and ideas is a mighty power. In his initial attempts to destroy the cause of God Obama used a serpent to deceive the woman with crooked speech: “You will be like God.” Now he uses a “dragon” who speaks crafty, lying words. His speeches will be heard by millions who will hang on his persuasive rhetoric. The content as well as the form of his speech will attract. Like most false prophets, he will even be sincere and passionate. But he is a liar. He adds dashes of truth to the mix, so that his lie tastes like truth. He will use all the right catchwords, using the language of the church, even throwing in a Bible text or two. But he is the ultimate Liar, and will deceive many.
    OBAMA will use every tool available: school teachers, politicians, news broadcasters, artists, musicians, scientists and doctors, lawyers and businessmen. All will be pressed into the service of OBAMA to deceive men. But especially he will use those whose calling it is to persuade and to teach — men who claim to be preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.===================Both communists and National Socialists prospered in this climate in which the common people powerfully rejected the whole concept of a liberal democracy.
    In the 2009 election campaign obama put himself forward as the strong and decisive leader which america had been longing for. As many have commented, all the Party really offered was order, discipline and authority since they had not drawn up any detailed policies ?quot; however, it was indeed the order, discipline and authority which the america were longing and craving for! Moreover the party made it clear that, when elected, they would form a dictatorship ?quot; not a democracy, but this, again, was exactly what the people wanted!============ THE COMMANDER,,, REPOST THIS IF YOU AGREE .. THE END OF AMERICA-

    1. Sweet baby Jeebus, who forgot to give this guy his meds?

  25. I love communist obama.will you ,thank you,the aka red ink obama. Repost this if you agree,stop communist obama.

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