What we learned: 10 lessons from the campaign brought to you by Citizens United


ballot box and money

(Updated Nov. 6, 11:31 a.m.)

For the candidates, it's all over except for the voting, but for those of us who follow money in politics, it will take months to close the books on what will be the most expensive election in history.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United, outside groups spent more than $1 billion to influence the election. Included in that total: Nearly $300 million from shadowy groups that do not disclose their donors. 

For the first time, both major party candidates opted out of the Presidential Campaign Fund, the taxpayer-funded kitty for the general election, and courted wealthy donors right up to Election Day. Since he kicked off his campaign in April 2011, President Barack Obama raised nearly $1 billion for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee, while Mitt Romney's haul amounted to $826.9 million.

The Federal Election Commission reports that House candidates have raised more than $1 billion, while those vying for Senate seats got donors to pony up $688 million. Political action committees–the mild mannered Clark Kent variety that donate to candidates, not the super PACs that are not supposed to coordinate with those running for office–raised $1.1 billion of their own.

Sorting out how all that money–much of it given by individuals and organizations with business before Congress and the executive branch–will affect the lives of average citizens is a daunting task we will tackle in the months ahead. Meanwhile, here are a few lessons we learned in the brave new world of unlimited political money:

  1. Yes Virginia (and Ohio and Florida), Citizens United made a big difference. The amount of money spent by outside interest groups to influence the last presidential election, according to our friends at the Center for Responsive Politics: $262.7 million. The amount this time around: $1.3 billion and counting. 
  2. The economy is bad for only some people. As of the last week of October, 135 individuals or entitities had each made donations of $1 million or more to outside spending groups active in this year's campaign, data drawn from Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money show. Six individuals contributed more than $10 million apiece, including, as we have previously reported, a single couple, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. Together, they gave more than $50 million. Combined, the six individuals who wrote eight-figures worth of checks were responsible for nearly $123 million in donations to outside interest groups. Of the six, only one — Chicago media executive Fred Eychaner — supported Democratic candidates, and he gave the least of the group, a measly $12 million. 
  3. Some donors like the shadows. While many donors, like the aforementioned members of the multi-million-dollar club, certainly have not been shy about flaunting their wealth and the influence it can buy, others have deliberately chosen routes for their largesse that will leave their names safe from public disclosure. Political committees organized as social welfare non-profits had pumped more than $296 million into the campaign as of Election Day morning; the donors of that money will never have to be disclosed. Electioneering communications — political ads that stop short of advocating for or against a candidate's election — appeared to drop off in popularity after a federal court ruled that groups making them might have to disclose their donors. But since Oct. 18, when an appellate court ruled that the names wouldn't have to be made public after all, we've seen $9.3 million in electioneering communications.  Another $28.6 million poured in through committees that registered activity with the Federal Elections Commission late enough that they will not have to disclose donors unwil after the election.
  4. Outside money outsources the slime. Experts agree that negative advertising works but it can also backfire, which is why candidates don't like attaching their names to them in those pesky "I authorized this advertisement" statements. Now they don't have to: 75 percent of the spending underwritten by super PACs was negative; for the dark money non-profits, the figure was 80 percent.
  5. Late money is like bunnies. It proliferates. Of the more than $1 billion spent by outside interest groups to influence this year's elections, the vast majority was unleashed late in the campaign. Between Sept. 7 and Election Day, outside spenders have dumped more than $861 million into the races for the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. At least $58.5 million poured in during the closing days of the campaign, from Friday through Monday.
  6. Outside money leans, like the Tower of Pisa and then some, Republican. Of the independent expenditures that have been made since September nearly two-thirds have favored the GOP: $524,226,969 of the money went to Republican candidates and causes, compared to $333,768,345 for Democrats. In the last weekend of the campaign, outside groups spent $37.5 million supporting Romney, compared to $2.9 million for Obama — a better-than 10-to-1 advantage.
  7. Money that has donors' names attached to it goes further than money that doesn't. Don't cry for President Obama. He has not only maintained a consistent lead over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, in fundraising throughout the campaign but he's also trounced him in advertising in some of the most heavily blitzed markets. That's because, by law, candidates get a discounted rate from TV stations. Outside groups don't. And candidates and committees that report their donations can spend 100 percent of what they collect on politics. Nonprofit groups must spend at least 51 percent of their take on something else.
  8. Money talks. And talks. And talks. Sometimes right over the used car commercials. So far this year, Sunlight's Political Ad Hawk has entered more than 4,000 campaign ads in our database. And Political Ad Sleuth, which tracks filings that political advertisers have posted with the Federal Communication, had more than 43,000 in its database as of Monday night. And that does not even include all the markets in the battleground states. The Wesleyan Media Project reported last week that there have been more than 1 million airings of political ads during this campaign. No wonder it's brought at least one American (albeit one not quite of voting age) to tears.
  9. Campaigning can be unsafe at Twitter speed. Of the more than 4,000 tweets deleted by politicians published by Sunlight's Politwoops, more than one-tenth — 426 — occurred during the month of October, when Obama, Romney and many downballot candidates were involved in debates and their aides apparently couldn't keep those fingers from walking on the lawmakers', or would-be lawmakers' behalf. Sometimes they were typing things they regretted and sometimes, as we've reported, elected officials were using official accounts to make partisan remarks. Twoops!
  10. Politicians talk like populists and party like plutocrats. Since January, Sunlight's Political Party Time has logged more than 2,700 invitations to political fundraisers, many of them at exotic locales ranging from a Pearl Jam concert in Missoula, Mont. to Shanghai, China. And as our catalogue reveals, the higher the price party-goers are willing to pay, the more access they get to the policy makers.

And now, for a bit of good news:

Sunlight is the best of disinfectants. At least 3,000 people have participated in Sunlight Live, a new tool that allows viewers to engage with each other and with panels of experts during live news events. We used it to cover both presidential nominating conventions as well as the fall presidential and vice presidential debates. Sunlight Academy, which launched earlier this year, offers training on how to use Sunlight's powerful tech tools to become more informed and empowered citizens. More and 750 users have registered so far. We've also trained hundreds of reporters across the country on our Follow the Unlimited Money tool and other Sunlight resources, like Influence Explorer and Party Time. And the Sunlight Foundation, Free Press and Pro Publica have worked together to coordinate efforts to make the political ad files more transparent.

Happy Election Day! Remember: Money can't buy your vote.

(Illustration credit: PeskyMonkey via iStockphoto.com)