The Purchased Primary: Did Citizens United Work?

I think I speak for all Democrats when I say, I’m going to miss Rick Santorum. (Though odds are he’ll be back.) For all of John Stewart’s mockery, Rick really was an improbable candidate — as is Newt Gingrich, still. So improbable in fact, that…

Well, how the Hell did it happen, anyways?

The answer seems to be money. Lots, and lots of money. Money, you see, works. And thanks to eccentric billionaires and Super PACs, it was on display in this past cycle like never before. There’s no reason to believe any of these candidates would have survived against Mitt Romney for as long as they did, but for massive and repeated capital infusions.

That’s a good thing. The degree to which Romney had to outspend Rick — and the ridiculous disparity between the price-per-vote rates — suggests that, for all his absurdity, Rick Santorum’s protracted presence in the race was good for democracy. Something about the deranged theocrat resonated with the American public, at least in comparison to Mitt Romney, something that may not have had a chance to play out in full but for the wealthy donors who substantially underwrote the campaign.

As a means to evaluate the effects of our political experiment in unrestrained spending (symbolized by Citizens United, Super PACs, etc.) on foundational First Amendment principles, we might conclude from this primary that the marketplace of ideas survives… after a fashion. Recall that ideally, First Amendment law should remove the distortionary effect of government regulation from the marketplace , allowing the people to speak clearly, and thereby enabling the truth to rise to the top. For whatever reason, the distortionary effect of money in politics has notyet, at least in this limited sample, resulted in an unhealthy loss of ideological diversity. Instead of favoring the establishment (Romney), limitless spending allowed the various partisans in this little war for the soul of the Republican Party to fight on something closer to an equal footing than they might otherwise have attained. Maybe true freedom, by letting everyone try to buy the election, actually is better for free speech?

Any such conclusion would be premature. After all, it only happened to be the case that the whims of the super-rich favored a diversity of opinions, and therefore aligned with what’s best for democracy. Come the next election, it could be entirely different. And, regardless of his staying power, Rick Santorum ultimately lost. Would strict regulation have prevented Romney from buying the primary as surely as he did, while also not starving his opponents of the cash they needed to compete? Would that have been a better race? We’ll never know. On to the next experiment.


  1. David Boudreau · ·

    YES! Citizens United Work’d for the Republicans, There is 1 more piece to the puzzle that really frightens me…….. Voter Suppression, those two things are gonna cause a different winner than a FREE FAIR Election would have otherwise hoped for.. I think the Dems / left are doomed! The republican prize is NOT the White House, it’s controll of both house’s.

  2. I think the most interesting case is Pennsylvania, where Santorum started out with a substantial lead (as expected), but has recently been trailing Romney by several points in the polls. Is that just a result of the voters losing faith in Santorum as Romney pulls ahead, or is it the Romney money machine and their negative ads taking a toll? Hard to say, but it might be interesting to correlate the changes in the polls with the campaign spending and see how much impact it actually has.

    It really blows my mind that Gingrich is still in the race, though. I mean, I can kinda understand Paul, but I have no idea why Newt is getting out of carrying on. I assume it’s more or less just Sheldon Adelson’s money keeping him above the water by now, so maybe there you could talk about a distortionary effect – or I guess just about Adelson having too much money, I don’t know.

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