Even Before 'Citizens United,' Big Donors Dominated

The emergence of Joe Ricketts is yet more proof of how the Citizens United court ruling has opened the flood gates for wealthy donors to influence the outcome of presidential campaigns — or has it? Peter Overby talks to Robert Siegel about big donors and what those court decisions really mean.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Joe Ricketts, of course, is just the latest wealthy donor to jump into the political fray. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Peter Overby. Hi, Peter.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Hello.

SIEGEL: And remind us of some of the big names who are spending big money in the presidential race this year.

OVERBY: Well, we've been trying to keep track of them, and there are about two dozen that we know of. For instance, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family have put $25 million into the race, mostly to the superPAC that was backing Newt Gingrich in the primaries. Texas investor Harold Simmons and his wife have put in nearly 14 million. We have some liberal millionaires as well. Jeffrey Katzenberg gave two million through his company DreamWorks to the pro-Obama superPAC. And there are some $1 million donors on the Democratic side: comedian Bill Maher and New York real estate investor Amy Goldman, for instance.

SIEGEL: And to what extent is this because of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, the ruling that opened the door to this kind of activity?

OVERBY: Well, even before Citizens United came along in 2010, rich people always were able to get serious influence in a presidential race. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - you remember back...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

OVERBY: ...in 2004 - a political organization, they attacked John Kerry just as he was about to accept the Democratic presidential nomination. Overall, Swift Boat Veterans raised $17 million - $10 million of that came from just three donors.

SIEGEL: Well, then what did the Citizens United ruling actually do? What did it change?

OVERBY: Well, strictly speaking, Citizens United let corporations spend money to explicitly support or attack candidates. This is different from the Swift Boat era. What happened there was the Swift Boat ads, they were trying to trash Kerry's reputation, but they weren't trying to tell voters how to vote, and that's a significant difference in election law, made more significant by the fact that after the 2004 election, the Federal Election Commission went after Swift Boat Veterans and some similar groups, saying that they had gotten too partisan, and the groups were penalized. So that really put a chill on this kind of outside money giving for 2008.

But then, along comes Citizens United in 2010, and it says go ahead, get into those explicit for-or-against messages about the candidates. Now, Citizens United said what you could do, but it was another decision called SpeechNow.org, an appellate court decision, that provided a mechanism for doing that. And what SpeechNow.org said was that people can pool their unlimited money to do these explicit independent expenditure types of ads, and that's where you get superPACs.

SIEGEL: But, Peter, if Citizens United, if the big change in that ruling was that it permitted corporations to do what they had been barred from doing in the past, why in this election cycle are we seeing just very rich individuals as opposed to corporations writing the big checks?

OVERBY: Well, you're seeing the rich individuals, and you're also seeing some money from the companies that they own. What you're not seeing so much of is money from publicly-held corporations and especially corporations that deal with the public, you know, that sell consumer goods, for instance. I was at a conference about this just a couple of days ago sponsored by The Conference Board, which is a business group. And the thing that was mentioned over and over there was bad publicity.

For a publicly-held company, there's real fear that if they get into attacking a candidate, it's going to blow up in their face, and they're going to have to do damage control to maintain their business position. So in that context, the Ricketts case may be a good example. Joe Ricketts is still closely tied to Ameritrade, the company that he founded, that he used to run. He doesn't run it anymore. But if he had gone ahead with the superPAC attack on President Obama, it could have caused serious problems for Ameritrade if they would have to deal with his corporation.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Peter.

OVERBY: Glad to do it.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Peter Overby.

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