The New York Times Downplays The Influence Of Money In Politics

The New York Times downplayed the impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and dismissed the influence of money in politics by ignoring record-breaking spending of outside groups, the role of large donor political contributions, and dark money in the 2014 midterm election. 

A December 9 New York Times Magazine article entitled "Who Wants to Buy a Politician?" argued that the “forecast that a flood of money would follow” the 2010 Citizens United ruling has largely not come to fruition. Author Binyamin Appelbaum noted that “spending has declined in each of the last two congressional elections” and argued that spending on campaign elections is “economically inefficient” because campaign spending has little impact on election outcomes:

[T]he 2012 presidential election, which recorded $2.6 billion in campaign spending, underperformed many forecasts. And spending has declined in each of the last two congressional elections. Candidates and other interested parties spent $3.7 billion on this year's midterms, down from an inflation-adjusted total of $3.8 billion in 2012, which was less than the $4 billion spent in2010, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. 


[B]uying elections is economically inefficient. Most voters, like most consumers, have defined preferences that are difficult for advertisers to shift. Chevron spent roughly $3 million during a recent campaign backing, certain City Council candidates in Richmond, Calif., where it operates a major refinery. Voters instead chose a slate of candidates who want to raise taxes. “Campaign spending has an extremely small impact on election outcomes, regardless of who does the spending,” the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt concluded in a 1994 paper. He found that spending an extra $100,000 in a House race might be expected to increase a candidate's vote total by about 0.33 percentage points. Investors appear to agree that companies can't make money by investing in political campaigns. A 2004 study found that changes in campaign-finance laws had no discernible impact on the share prices of companies that made donations.

Appelbaum points to small donor contributions to argue that the majority of donations are not meant as an influencing factor:

Most campaign money, after all, comes in smaller chunks from individual donors. People who gave $3 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 could not have reasonably expected that their small contributions would influence the future president. Even those who give larger sums rarely contribute the maximum allowed by law, as might be expected of someone trying to buy influence. Instead, individual contributions have increased over time merely in proportion to personal income.

But this argument obscures the especially outsized role large donors have in elections and downplays the proportion of large donations to overall campaign spending. The Sunlight Foundation found that in 2012, the median contribution from this group of elite donors was $26,584. Demos, a progressive public policy think tank, analyzed campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics and found that most campaigns in 2014 were actually fueled by big donors:

Just 50 individuals and their spouses accounted for more than a third of the total money raised by Super PACs this cycle.  Many candidates, including some whose individual contribution totals reach into the millions, report receiving few or even no dollars in contributions from small donors. For example, House Budget--and future Ways and Means--Committee Chairman Paul Ryan reported that all of his more than $5 million in individual contributions came from large donors.

Appelbaum also glossed over the record spending made by outside groups in the 2014 midterms. According to The New York Times, “political groups independent of candidates spent more than $814 million to influence congressional elections last month, a record for the midterms and nearly twice the spending in 2010, Federal Election Commission records show.” And as the Center for Responsive Politics noted, this year's figure show an increase in the overall share of campaign financing came from outside groups. Such groups represented 8.5 percent of the total spent in 2010 and are projected to represent 13 percent in 2014 while there were “fewer people donating to political organizations.” 

Most egregiously, Appelbaum failed to note the role of dark money in elections. According to ABC News, “this year, dark money groups have spent $200 million in 11 of the most competitive Senate races, nearly double the amount they forked out in 2012.” As the Huffington Post noted, the 2014 Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina accounted for nearly half of all dark money spent to target 2014 candidates. Appelbaum cited two of these races, but suggested they were “the exception.” 

All of this matters, because as Ian Vandewalker of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice demonstrated, the fusion of campaigns and big money can subvert the ability of qualified individuals to pursue public office if they don't have access to wealthy donors: 

Although marginal differences in spending won't swing election outcomes, a candidate who doesn't raise a sufficient amount of money is virtually guaranteed to lose. As a result, candidates who don't have connections to wealthy donors may never bother to run, no matter how qualified they are. And the “arms race” mentality tells candidates not to let the other guy get too far ahead in spending. That's why candidates, including incumbent officials, are falling all over each other to raise money.

While it's true that the amount spent on all the congressional elections together hasn't changed much in recent years, that fact obscures the reality that spending is highly concentrated in the competitive races that will decide control of a chamber of Congress. Donors don't just want to buy the gratitude of a candidate, they want the gratitude of the party in power.