As I discussed before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen United v FEC has opened the door to excessive corporate involvement in elections; in the 2010 midterms tens of millions of dollars were taken from corporate general treasuries for election activities, and given the lack of disclosure requirements, these known expenditures are likely only the tip of the iceberg. With higher stakes and more experience in how to engage in campaign activities, corporations are likely to be much more involved in the 2012 election, with many estimating that hundreds of millions will be spent by outside groups. This trend is highly disturbing and reflects the need for serious campaign finance reform in reaction to Citizens United. Congress appears unwilling to act on this issue (despite broad public support across the political spectrum), however there is a silver lining in the status quo system of campaign spending.
While corporations can spend general treasury funds on political activities, they must do so independently; even under Citizens United, corporations are prohibited from directly contributing to political campaigns. Groups engaging in independent expenditures are barred from coordinating with campaigns, even if they are acting with the explicit goal of supporting those campaigns. And while it may be relatively easy for a campaign and powerful independent expenditure group such as American Crossroads to watch each other’s media strategies and act accordingly, campaigns are increasingly becoming dependent upon data and information.
Data collection and targeting have also been a key tool to successful campaigns. However, the rise of Web 2.0 technologies and social media have expanded their importance to an unprecedented degree. Websites such as Facebook allow campaigns to collect an unimaginable amount of valuable data that allow them to target swing voters, strong supporters, volunteers, and donors. Additionally, those same social media sources have become the method of targeting, allowing campaigns to effectively conduct outreach on an individual level.
Campaigns’ emphasis on new media data collection and use has not just become profoundly important but also a significant portion of a campaign’s budget, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article which stated that the Obama campaign has already spent millions on social media and information technology. This becomes significant with regard to independent efforts, because without the ability to coordinate and share information, campaigns and powerful independent groups must pay twice over to acquire the same information through online services. While this disincentive will not stop secretly funded groups from continuing to play a role in elections, it does at least reward campaigns that base their strategy around direct funding and disclosure rather than reliance on outside organizations that lack transparency and accountability.