In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS

  • Introduction
  • Responses in the Legal Community

Political Science Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS
Robert G. Boatright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0229


The regulations concerning how American political campaigns are financed have changed dramatically over the past decade. The US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (2010) removed restrictions on corporate and labor spending on elections. A subsequent decision in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock held that the ruling also applied to state elections. The Supreme Court’s decision ultimately led to the establishment of “super PACs” as a result of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals opinion in v. Federal Election Commission, which held that political committees that only spend money independently in support of candidates are not subject to federal contribution limits but must comply with disclosure rules. Super PACs were thus permitted to use unlimited contributions to finance independent advocacy spending. While super PACs cannot give money directly to candidates or directly coordinate their efforts with candidates or parties, within a short amount of time they developed the ability to come quite close to serving as parallel campaign organizations. Not coincidentally, total spending on presidential and congressional elections increased substantially in the election cycles following the decision. The Citizens United decision did not merely increase spending in these elections, however; it shifted the balance in spending away from candidates and parties and toward groups. This prompted a variety of changes, as well, in the content of political advertisements; in public attitudes toward campaign finance; and in the ability of citizens to know the sources of campaign money. However, not all changes in campaign finance were a consequence of the Citizens United decision; candidate fundraising practices, advertising strategies, communication techniques, and many other activities related to the campaign finance system are constantly evolving. This literature review focuses on the origins of the Citizens United decision, ways in which we might measure its consequences for campaign spending, and the broader consequences for American democracy of campaign finance laws and practices.

The Citizens United Decision

Campaign finance law has been in a state of flux for much of the past fifty years. As a consequence, there is a well-developed body of work on the relationship between the courts and the campaign finance system. This work includes theoretical considerations of the relationship between money and democratic elections and of the Constitutional rationale for different types of regulation.

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