Nearly 14 years after a controversial Supreme Court case opened the door to unlimited independent spending in federal elections, the U.S. is on track for another election cycle with record-breaking spending.

In the 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) handed down Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled longstanding limits on independent expenditures by corporations, unions and other groups in federal elections violated the First Amendment right to free speech, although they cannot legally coordinate their spending with campaigns.

Citizens United kicked off “a race to the top of the spending charts,” Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the money-in-politics tracking organization OpenSecrets, told The Hill.

AdImpact, a political advertising tracking firm, anticipates $10.2 billion will be spent on political advertising across broadcast, cable, radio, satellite, digital and CTV during the 2024 cycle, which would make it the most expensive in history. AdImpact tracked more than $9 billion in such political expenditures during the 2020 election cycle, the standing record.

Super PACs and other outside groups, which were permitted to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections following the Citizens United ruling, are already outstripping spending in previous election cycles.

Outside groups have dumped nearly $318 million into 2024 presidential and congressional elections as of Sunday, OpenSecrets reported. That top-line figure is more than six times the amount spent through the same period in 2020.

A boom in outside spending since the Citizens United decision has contributed to steadily more expensive elections.

During the 2008 cycle, the last presidential election cycle before 2010 Supreme Court ruling, candidates, political parties and independent outside groups spent $7.1 billion on federal elections, adjusted for inflation, according to OpenSecrets. During the 2020 election cycle, total spending topped $16.4 billion.

The wash of money in politics — and its perceived influence on politicians and the policymaking process — has left many Americans skeptical that their elected representatives are working for them.

More than 70 percent of American adults across ideological and demographic lines think there should be limits on how much money individuals and organizations can spend on elections, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. The D.C.-based think tank surveyed 8,480 adults from July 10 to 16, 2023, and released the data as part of its “Americans’ Dismal Views of the Nation’s Politics” report this past fall.

But Bryner sees negative views of the role of money in politics as “more of a symptom of the kind of polarization and alienation that people feel from politics.”

“We have these legal changes that allow for huge donations by mega donors and by corporations and unions, and then we also have this societal shift where political giving is part of what people think they need to do to be involved and to make change,” Bryner said. “And I think that both of those contribute to these record totals.”

An expensive start to 2024

There’s already a ton of money pouring into the 2024 presidential race.

Campaigns and their affiliated PACs poured more than $120 million into state political ad buys ahead of the Iowa Republican caucuses on Monday, a new record, according to AdImpact data reported by CNBC.

But whether predictions of record-breaking spending come to pass remains to be seen, Bryner said.

“I have been saying the whole time that I think that depends on what happens with this [Republican] primary,” Bryner said. “If [President] Trump wraps up the Republican nomination really fast, there are less opportunities for heavy spending in a lot of these primary contests.”

Trump handily won Iowa, though former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has closed the gap to single digits in New Hampshire, according to polling analysis by Decision Desk HQ/The Hill. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also remains in the race heading into the GOP primary in New Hampshire next Tuesday.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in campaign finance and constitutional law, predicts another cycle of record spending if Trump and Biden face off again.

“Both of these candidates are excellent at fundraising and then you’re going to have all of the outside money and dark money trying to influence individuals’ votes,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “I think we’re in for a bumpy ride.”

President Biden’s reelection operation — comprising his campaign, joint fundraising committees and the Democratic National Committee — announced Monday it has $117 million on hand and raked in more than $97 million during the fourth quarter of 2023.

Official year-end filings due to the FEC at the end of January will paint a clearer picture of how much money candidates have on hand heading into the first leg of the 2024 election.

‘Dark money’ fuels negative view of the role of money in politics

An overwhelming majority of Americans — 82 percent — told Pew they think donors have too much influence over decisions made by members of Congress, and 73 percent thought lobbyists and special interest groups hold too much sway.

The explosion of “dark money,” political spending to influence voters without disclosing the source or the funds by groups that do not disclose their donors, after the Citizens United decision may contribute to pessimistic attitudes about who is influencing elected officials.

“You have no idea who is paying to influence those outcomes, and I think it’s also a little bit naive to assume that even though it’s anonymous to the public, it’s anonymous to the recipient,” Bryner said.

OpenSecrets found that of the $9 billion in outside spending between Citizens United and the 2022 election, more than $2.6 billion came from opaque sources.

Perhaps the most sensational recent example was the stunning downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX who publicly contributed $40.7 million to federal Democratic candidates and groups during the 2022 election cycle and allegedly kept his donations to Republicans “dark.”

While independent expenditure groups, like super PACs, are legally required to disclose their donors, contributions from shell companies, nonprofits or straw donors can conceal the true source of the funds.

Dark money groups have also found creative ways to get around reporting their spending to the FEC, including stopping spending within a certain window before an election and avoiding the use of “magic words” calling on voters to support or oppose a candidate that would trigger disclosure.

But Torres-Spelliscy told The Hill she thinks it’s “not fair to blame Citizens United for dark money.”

“Citizens United is actually good on disclosure,” Torres-Spelliscy said, noting the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to uphold disclosure requirements as part of its decision in Citizens United.

The late conservative stalwart Justice Antonin Scalia, who voted in the majority on Citizens United, agreed the First Amendment does not extend the right to “speak” anonymously in a 2010 opinion in the case of Doe v. Reed.

“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” Scalia wrote. “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”

Following the Citizens United decision, conservative groups were the first to use dark money aggressively, Issue One Research Director Michael Beckel told The Hill, but liberal groups have caught up in recent years, broadening the practice out across the political spectrum.

“One trend to be paying attention to this year is to what extent both teams are using dark money, or if one team is using it more. Generally in the last few election cycles, we’ve seen both Democrats and Republicans willing to use dark money vehicles. Neither side wants to be left behind in this political money arms race,” Beckel said.

Taylor Giorno previously worked for OpenSecrets.

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