Given the way the latest poll numbers are trending, it’s unclear whether Citizens United has had the field-clearing napalm effect on the presidential election that some had predicted. The ruling has, however, definitely put its fingerprint on the 2012 election cycle in terms of total dollars spent. According to a new report from the non-profit and non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, roughly 78 percent of the $465 million worth of outside spending to date this time around can be tied directly to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling.
According to the group, super PACs—which came into being following the high court's decision—have accounted for $272 million in campaign spending this cycle, while corporations, trade groups, and nonprofits have spent almost $93 million. Combined, that's about $365 million, or nearly double those group's 2010 totals, according to the Sunlight report.
We should note that 2010 may not be the best comparison in terms of dollars spent (it was not, obviously, a presidential election year) but it is nonetheless noteworthy that those elections, the first after the Supreme Court's ruling, saw only about 40 percent of outside spending linked directly to Citizens United. So while the high-profile nature of the presidential race may be drawing in more cash, it also suggests that the outside groups have gotten better at using the more lax campaign-finance rules to their advantage.
To date, most of the money amassed by the major super PACs has been put toward negative advertising in the presidential election, according to Sunlight's tallies. In total, $131.1 million has been spent in opposition to President Obama, while $50.7 million has been spent to attack Mitt Romney. Alternatively, only $22.2 million has been spent on positive ads backing either candidate.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, the most recent data suggests that outside groups are increasingly spending their cash on Senate and House races, while the amount directed at the top of the ballot has declined. If Romney is unable to close the gap in the polls in the coming weeks, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that that trend will continue as November nears.