Citizens United, States Divided: An Empirical Analysis of Independent Political Spending

This study examines the effect the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC has on independent spending in American politics. Previous attempts to answer this question have focused solely on federal elections where there is no baseline for comparing changes in spending behavior. The authors, Douglas M. Spencer and Abby K. Wood, overcome this limitation by examining the effects of Citizens United as a natural experiment on the states. Before Citizens United, about half of the states banned corporate independent expenditures and thus were “treated” by the Supreme Court’s decision, which invalidated these states’ laws. The study relies on recently released state-level data to compare spending in “treated” states to spending in the “control” states that have never banned corporate or union independent expenditures. Among the authors’ findings, they conclude that while independent expenditures increased in both treated and control states between 2006 and 2010, the increase was more than twice as large in the treated states. Ultimately, the authors observe that the increase in spending after Citizens United was not the product of fewer, larger expenditures as many scholars and pundits predicted, and they note that individuals were just as likely to make smaller expenditures (less than $400) after Citizens United as they were before the decision. This finding is particularly striking because it cuts against the conventional wisdom of spending behavior and also challenges the logic of those who disagree with the most controversial element of the Citizens United decision – the rejection of political equality as a valid state interest.