The Party Is Not Over: Of SuperPACs, Saddlebags, and the Survival of the Parties Post-Citizens United
This is the second post in a series discussing how the 2012 elections revealed the strength of political parties in modern politics, and that the way we understand how our constitution and election laws work has yet to catch up with our ever-strengthening party system.
Much has been made of the role of money in our first post-Citizens United Presidential election. And rightly so. Despite the fact that the actual changes Citizens United made in campaign law seemed small to some experts, it is undoubtedly the case that there was a huge increase in spending in 2012 (and in 2010). Most independent political spending was done on behalf of Republicans. In the aftermath of the President’s re-election, many have asked whether that money was wasted or was a case of rich guys getting conned by political consultants. Some big spenders have begun asking serious questions, particularly of the biggest of SuperPAC, Karl Rove’s Crossroads and its 501(c)4 affiliated-entity Crossroads GPS. (There was apparently a post-election conference call between the biggest Crossroads donors and Rove, which I imagine went something like the famous Saddlebags scene in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.)
It is very hard to determine whether any given amount of money was spent well or poorly during an election, or even how much different types of campaign spending matter to determining election results. But one thing we can say is about who got the money. The answer is independent groups that are run by party regulars, SuperPACs that look, smell, and act a lot like political party organizations.
When Citizens United (and its sister case, Speech Now) came down, many political scientists and election law experts were worried that independent spending would have a centrifugal effect on our politics, with every separate cause and rich person’s issue getting its own SuperPAC. Campaigns would be run on issues decided by the whims of rich folk and the rent-seeking interests of corporations. The voices of parties and candidates would be lost in the din.
This type of worry is rooted in the ideas of the Responsible Party Governance school of thought. RPG scholars (and those influenced by them) argue that ideologically-coherent programmatic parties are necessary for popular governance. If parties are ideologically consistent, both down-the-ballot and over time, voters can develop clear senses of their approaches to governance even without knowing very much about any given issue or candidate. Using party as a heuristic for what a candidate will do has become ever-more effective as the parties have become clearer and more polarized. Further, parties can be held accountable for failures, as they last longer than any given election. And, if strong enough, parties can actually get important legislation through our convoluted constitutional structure. The structural worry set off by Citizens United was that it would weaken the parties, and therefore weaken the ability of voters to control government.
But what the 2012 election showed is that this worry was overblown, at least for now. SuperPAC money came into elections, certainly, but it flowed almost entirely into big, generalist Superpacs associated with the parties or the Presidential candidates. There are legal and formal distinctions between the Republican Party organization and Crossroads, but there are few functional ones. Karl Rove ran the Republican Party and then he ran Crossroads. Crossroads did the things we’d imagine a Party would do. It tried to impose party discipline by refusing to spend on Todd Akin’s Senate race. It spent money down-ballot and well as on the top of the ticket. It funded get out the vote operations. Rove now says Crossroads is going to get involved in Republican primaries to help out candidates who will do well in general elections. Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic SuperPAC did less of this activity because it was smaller and because the Obama campaign had so much money, but it played a central role in Democratic Party messaging. There were some issue-specific ad campaigns and a few rich guys that ran ads on their own terms, but they were few and far between – the big money was with the party-organization-like SuperPACs and 501(c)4s, and the SuperPACs associated with candidates.
For those who actually read their RPG scholarship, this was not a total surprise. E.E. Schattschneider, the central figure in RPG scholarship around the middle of the last century, argued that people who think interest groups dominate parties are mistaken. The reason is simple: there are only two parties and thousands of potential interests. Because of our system of first-past-the-post vote counting, single-member districts and Presidential elections, there is an effective limit on the number of parties. If an interest group decides to go its own way, or to switch sides, the parties are okay with seeing them go – there are always other sources of cash. The financial industry switched from supporting Obama in 2008 with a majority of their spending to being almost exclusively pro-Romney in 2012. And Obama was still able to run a campaign. Interest groups need the parties far more than the parties need any individual interest group.
This doesn’t mean campaign money doesn’t influence the substance of politics. It surely does. And the relation between the parties and these “shadow parties” is still up in the air – Heather Gerken has characteristically been several steps ahead of the rest of us in exploring this question, and the excellent journalist Reihan Salaam is on the case as well. But whatever effect money is going to have going forward, it is not likely to be to sideline the parties. And that’s as true post-Citizens United as it was before