Money is the dark matter of American elections: visualizing political donations since Citizens United

Mike from Mother Jones sez, "For our upcoming "dark money" print package, we chartified the known galaxy of outside political spending groups by their size. As you can see, we ended up with red giants and blue dwarfs."

If Citizens United was the Big Bang of a new era of money in politics, here's the parallel universe it formed: rapidly expanding super-PACs and nebulous 501(c) groups exerting their gravitational pull on federal elections. A group's size in the chart below is based upon all known fundraising or spending since 2010…so keep an eye out for dark matter. Come back for regular updates.

The Crazily Expanding Political Money Universe (Thanks, Mike!)


  1. I wonder if all the people who make the argument that corporations shouldn’t have any rights because they’re not actually people have actually given any thought to the implications of it.

    Since corporations don’t have any 4th amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, the state of Mississippi could simply raid the offices of Planned Parenthood (a corporation), and confiscate all their records and equipment.  Since corporations don’t have any 5th amendment rights ensuring due process of law, the government could just charge the ACLU (a corporation)  with a bunch of made-up crimes, have a judge declare them guilty, and then dissolve the charter.  Since corporations don’t have any free speech rights, the government could forbid newspapers (corporations all) from publishing anything critical of the government. 

    Citizens United was a non-profit organization that wanted to publish a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton.  That is the exact sort of speech that is at the very heart of the First Amendment; it wasn’t some strange corner case, it wasn’t a case of RJ Reynolds trying to claim that cigarettes cure herpes, it was a group of people who banded together to engage in *political speech*.  McCain-Feingold said they couldn’t do that.  The government actually argued in support of its case that it has the power to ban books.

    Everyone objecting to the USSC’s decision in that case really needs to let that sink in.  The CU didn’t say that you can’t regulate corporations at all, it didn’t touch a whole host of restrictions that exist on corporate speech.  What it said was that restrictions on corporate speech bear *some* degree of First Amendment scrutiny.  And unless you’re seriously of the opinion that the First Amendment protects what you have to say provided you’re speaking to a couple of people on a street corner, or protects you from running off samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn and handing them out at your local underground resistance cell meeting, but then *ceases* to protect you once you band together with like-minded individuals because you want to solicit investors and contract with printers and shipping companies and do all the other things that you need to do to publish a work to a wide audience, I can’t see how on earth you can argue against it.  If you want Congress to craft a more narrow ruling that would tighten campaign financing without making it illegal for *people to speak*, then advocate for that.  But don’t make horrible arguments with an enormity of far-reaching consequences that not a single one of the Justices in the case bought into in the slightest.

    The SC’s decision in the CU case was absolutely the correct one.  McCain-Feingold was an abomination against freedom of expression. 

    (And, oh yeah: if you look at donors over a wider spread of time, you’ll see that CU was a decision that works far more in favor of unions (which are corporations) than in favor of those evil big businesses: )

    1. None of the stuff you listed, or anything like it, ever happened before the Citizens United decision.  None of it.  What you’re describing is illegal, was illegal before Citizens United, and will still be illegal after (if) Citizens United is eventually overturned.

      1. “None of the stuff you listed, or anything like it, ever happened before the Citizens United decision.”

        That’s actually a non-factual statement.  It is a falsehood.  It is misinformation.  Things like it did, in fact, happen before the Citizens United decision (Abraham Lincoln shut down newspapers critical of his presidency, for example). 

        And in any event, I didn’t say they did happen, and  I didn’t say they would happen because of McCain-Feingold.  What I said is that if the argument that many have made in response to the CU decision (“Those stupid Supreme Court justicies, corporations shouldn’t have any rights!”) were adhered to by the court, then they *would* happen.

    2. I wonder if all the people who make the argument that corporations shouldn’t have any rights because they’re not actually people have actually given any thought to the implications of it.

      Nahhh. . .  we just shoot our mouths off without thinking about it.  Because everyone is stupid but you.

    3. @Phantic:disqus 

      I’ve only given this a quick moment’s thought… but I really can’t see the logic of your arguments.  If corporations don’t have legal rights… well, they can’t own property.  So how do you confiscate the property of something that doesn’t have property?  That property must belong to someone, and that someone has legal rights.

      The same applies to 5th Amendment rights.  There are people who back this corporation – they have rights, and those would be infringed.

      And bringing in the Union vs Business thing is just plain odd – what does that have to do with the premise regarding whether corporations should have the rights of people?

      On first blush, I’m hard pressed to give full legal rights to entities that aren’t subject to the full extent of punishments under the law (e.g. I can’t send a corporation to prison).  But I’m welcome to hear arguments to the contrary.  These arguments, though, don’t seem to hold muster.

      1. “That property must belong to someone”

        You know why corporations exist, right?  They exist to shield the assets of investors from the liabilities of the corporations.   They have to be distinct legal entities for the concept of a corporation to have any value at all; if I’m a shareholder in a company, and that company gets sued and has to pay a judgement, and goes bankrupt as a result, then the company’s creditors can’t come after *my property*, because it’s not the company’s, it’s mine, and my liability is limited.  That’s the whole point of the thing in the first place.   If you eliminate that protection, then a whole lot of things that people form corporations to do (like, oh, produce and distribute political documentaries critical of a candidate, or provide reproductive planning services, or solicit donations to provide a source of funding for legal actions protective of civil liberties), are suddenly a lot less likely to get done. 

        “they have rights”

        What rights?  What right would a stockholder have that would prevent the government from dissolving the charter of a corporation he’s an investor in? 

        ” I’m hard pressed to give full legal rights to entities that aren’t subject to the full extent of punishments under the law”

        That’s a relief.  I mean, it’s a complete non-sequitur because that’s not at all what the CU decision did, in even the slightest degree, and didn’t even approach being the central issue, but I guess it’s a relief nonetheless. 

        1. I have written multiple papers on this decision and I have to say that, while I don’t agree with everything that you are saying, you have made a damn strong showing on this thread. The Citizens U decision is complicated and I think that if anything can be said about what you have put forth, it is the fact that there are implications that need to be considered if the ruling would have gone the other way. I think that much of what you are saying makes sense in regards to the legal logic and reasoning behind the decision but what do you think will come of this in the future? Where do you stand from an ideological (not legal) perspective when it comes to supporting the decision? Do you feel that restricting the rights of corporations in this area (electoral speech) would be beneficial to the health of our democracy or do you feel the regulation actually hurts democracy more?

        2. You know why corporations exist, right?  They exist to shield the assets of investors from the liabilities of the corporations.

          Actually, that’s not the original purpose of corporations.

          Originally, corporations were created to perform a service for the public good (the public good being the most important consideration). That corporate shareholders could profit from them was simply the incentive to invest.

          Corporations could only exist for a limited time, had one very specific purpose (and could not do anything outside of that purpose, such as raise funds for political campaigns), and if they did do anything illegal or worked toward public harm, the corporation would be dissolved immediately. And of course, the owners were legally responsible for the crimes committed by their corporation.

          What we have now is a complete bastardization of the original intent of corporations. Rather than the public good being the foremost concern, it’s virtually off the list. Rather than dissolving criminal corporations, we slap a paltry fine on them and let them carry on. Rather than charging owners for directing their corporation into criminal activity, we say it was the corporation’s fault and you can’t haul that to jail.

          The only thing corporations care about is profitability, no matter the harm, no matter the cost to society. They can use their extreme wealth however they choose. It was never meant to be like this. And the furtherance of their power grab is only eroding society, not helping it.

    4. “If corporations are not people, they could be charged with crimes!”

      what is this i don’t even

    5. it was a group of people who banded together to engage in *political speech*

      Thank you, Phanatic. Exactly. I find it bizarre that anyone thinks that speech rights somehow evaporate once people form a company to make a movie. Do those rights evaporate when people publish a newspaper or a website? How is the Citizens United corporation essentially different from the New York Times corporation or Happy Mutants LLC? Anyone who says “corporations shouldn’t have free speech” is suggesting that the NY Times and Boing Boing can be forbidden to criticize candidates before an election. Well, screw that.

      1. It amazes me how fast the question became whether corporations should have free speech, as if the equivalence of money and speech was somehow always a given.  It’s not, it’s a wrong concept, and groups of people don’t end up with the same rights, powers, and responsibilities as individuals either way.

        1. Note that CU was not about CU giving money to any candidate or party, but simply expressing an opinion about a candidate, using money to make and distribute a movie. One problem with saying “money isn’t speech” is that you are likely to tie yourself into knots trying to separate the two, and end up with absurdities like saying it’s OK to give a speech on a soapbox in a park, but your speech rights change the moment you spend money on some flyers or a website or a movie on DVD.

  2. And yet now, the Democrats routinely outspend Republicans at least in the last handful of election cycles.   I don’t know what the future holds, but if MoveOn PAC approaches the $38 million it spent on the 2008 election, it might warrant a pretty large dot on that graphic.  I’m guessing that there were a few “blue giants” that were selectively left out or that simply haven’t started spending much yet.  (There is, after all, an uncontested Presidential nomination on the Democrats’ side of the aisle, so there’s a lot more current spending by Republicans.)’s 2010 Super PAC chart shows a few such blue giants, along with one immense red supergiant at the top.

    Chances are that things will look pretty similar once the 2012 cycle wraps up.

  3. If only there were some effective way to counter money. You know, with policies. That benefit the middle class and such. I guess we’ll never know.

    I am, incidentally, of the opinion that money matters a great deal less than those with money think it does. I’m in the minority here, but money didn’t save Phil “I’ve gut all the munney in the world” Gramm, nor Meg Whitman nor Carly Fiorina nor Linda McMahon. Phil Gramm ended up spending more money per vote than anyone in human history. All you can do with money is buy ads and there quickly comes a point where people tune ads out. What influences elections is the state of the economy, and the only thing that will affect that is effective policies that don’t kowtow to Wall Street.

  4. Brian, the numbers you are talking about refer to official party money: the DNC, the RNC, and money given to candidates under campaign finance laws. But unofficial money dwarfs official money, and Republican-allied groups have, and are spending, far more of it. Having an incompetent in charge of the RNC for a number of years made it even more likely that wealthy people who want to give to Republicans would give to one of the superPACs instead of to Michael Steele’s outfit.

    1. I don’t think you followed the link at all.  The SuperPAC chart that Brian Sprague linked to certainly isn’t “money given to candidates under campaign finance laws,” because campaign finance laws specifically forbid SuperPACs from giving money directly to candidates. 

      The CU decision is *overwhelmingly* more favorable to the DNC than to the RNC.  While a few companies which are heavily-invested in seeking a particular rent will spend money on campaign advertising, most won’t.  If it’s a close-enough race to make a decisive difference, it’s going to piss off a lot of people, even if your candidate wins.  If he loses, your business is even more boned.   Even those rent-seekers won’t spend much on promoting individual candidates, their money’s far better spent on good old-fashioned lobbying, which has nothing to do with McCain-Feingold or the CU decision. 

      The biggest beneficiaries of CU are the unions, especially public-sector unions.  Union expenditures will overwhelm business expenditures. 

      1. You might want to check Justice Steven’s dissent as to just which entities would be most benefited by the CU decision. And the argument that union expenditures will overwhelm business expenditures is absurd. That absurd statement is either a sin of omission or commission, only you know. We have presently the most concentrated corporate power that has existed in this country since the late 19th century, we also have seen union power reduced to a muffled squeak in the private sector and now the attack is on in the public sector. The sheer tidal wave of concentrated, and now unaccountable corporate money that this decision has unleashed into the political process is unconscionable.

        My personal opinion, for what little it is worth, is that this will be seen by future generations as the Dred Scott decision of the 21st century. The culture that produced this decision may well tear the fabric of this country to shreds.

        1. “And the argument that union expenditures will overwhelm business expenditures is absurd.”

          I’ll provide the link a second time, since you obviously didn’t follow it the first time:

          The list of all-time donors from 1989 to 2012 is overwhelmingly dominated by unions.  In the Top 20, there are three of those awful evil corporations, and they actually split their donations pretty evenly between Democratic and Republican recipients (Goldman-Sachs leans more DNC, but it’s only a 60:40 split).   You don’t even find a Republican-leaning enterprise until #19, the National Auto Dealers Association.  The SEIU’s “muffled squeak” comes in at a total of $37.8 million, 76% of which went to Democrats.  That’s more than Goldman Sachs spent, that’s more than JP Morgan spent, that’s more than Citigroup spent. 

          Like I said: the real influence-peddling is in lobbying, which isn’t affected by the CU decision in the slightest, because lobbying wasn’t what McCain-Feingold was about.

          Justice Steven’s dissent was literally incoherent.  It was a mass of depraved rambling.  Greenwald did a great job of explaining what was so awfully wrong with it.   I mean, Stevens was engaged in errors of fact and logic that would get you marked down on PHL101 papers.  For example: “The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural
          persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court’s disposition of this case. ”  That’s a giant strawman; nobody, not the plaintiffs nor the majority justices maintained that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere, Stevens is doing nothing but tilting at windmills by attacking this position which was adopted by no party to the case.  Another example: “Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”  Again, this is arrant nonsense, the privilege of voting isn’t taken by *anyone* as being protected by the First Amendment; convicted felons lose their right to vote, but not their right to express themselves freely.  It’s unable for a disinterested party to read Stevens’s dissent and not conclude that there might perhaps be something fundamentally flawed about allowing Supreme Court justices to serve until they willfully retire. 

           And even *Stevens* said that corporations have at least some first amendment protections, so even *he’s* not of the “corporations should have no rights!” school of thought.

          “The sheer tidal wave of concentrated, and now unaccountable corporate money that this decision has unleashed into the political process is unconscionable. ”

          This is simply histrionics. CU said that McCain-Feingold was unconstitutional. That’s it. McCain-Feingold was enacted in 2002. The CU decision simply eliminates the government’s ability to ban ads (and movies, and books, and pamphlets, and television shows) paid for by corporations, or which aren’t paid for by corporations but which mention a Federal candidate by name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of election, which is a power *it didn’t have until the law was passed in 2002 in the first place*. The suggestion that we’re heading into some vast, unregulated wilderness of new and unexplored territory is risible.

          1. I certainly don’t disagree that the worse problem is lobbying, but that doesn’t really affect how bad this decision was. 

            As to your link, those are dollar amounts from 1989 to 2012 (which hasn’t actually occurred yet).  The relevant dollar donation amounts would be donations by entity prior to the CU decision, and post CU.

      2. The biggest beneficiaries of CU are the unions, especially public-sector unions.  Union expenditures will overwhelm business expenditures.

        Union spending didn’t overwhelm business spending in 2010, and as you can see from the chart above, total union spending is less than spending by even one business organization, the Chamber of Commerce.

        Reality does not seem to match your perception of it.

  5. Wait, is the League of Conservative voters accidentally in the Liberal column, or is American politics really that far skewed to the right?

  6. I hope i’m not just trying to be optimistic about this more so than is humanly possible, but I like to think that with a generation or three now starting to grow up with computers and access to the internet, fewer and fewer of them are taking these TV ads for what they’re saying and actually questioning their motives. I hope that’s the case anyways. Also as time goes on fewer and fewer people are watching centralized broadast media and quite possibly in a few more generations we’ll once again have a reasonably aware electorate. but currently, the situation is completely and utterly abysmal.

    1. Where people get their information is definitely changing, but I’m not convinced it’s an improvement. It seems like a lot of people, instead of using the information age to get a diversity of viewpoints, instead use it to get as narrow and specific ones as possible, so they never have to read anything they don’t already believe.

      1. I worry about it the same way that you do but doesn’t the fact that you are here prove that is not entirely true? I am hesitant to see our happy little group of mutants as the exceptions to a population that is generally moronic (but sometimes when I am in an extra-cynical mood I do feel that way).

  7. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
    Was ever a woman in this humour woo’d?
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Money is the dark matter of American elections.

    Good line, writer.

    1. It is what it is: you are given a choice between X and Y, where in fact X == Y, you’re given a pat on the back from the State when you’ve performed that meaningless choice, and all along you’re supposed to feel like you’ve made a difference to things. Also see: Obama’s “change you can believe in”.

  8. One  of the predicted consequences of the Citizen’s United decision was that it would empower outside groups at the expense of the central parties, since donations to the party would be restricted, and donations to outside groups would not. 

  9. If evil corporations wanted to secretly fund advertisements supporting a candidate, (or bashing his opponent), they wouldn’t use a existing corporation. Rather, they would charter a 501c corporation, which would funnel donations into a 527 corporation, which would then fund the ads. The 501c corporation would be listed as the donor in any disclosure material, and the donations to the 501c corporation would not be disclosed until tax time, months after the election.

  10. Please!  Obama had the largest war chest and spent the most of any candidate in history to win the 2008 election.  You are not represented in the government, and no-one that I can think of that holds public office Governor and higher is clean.  They are all crooks.

    The easiest way to control the masses is divide and conquer.  By getting people to argue with each other the washington elite is laughing all the way to the bank.  Both sides, Reid, Obama, Pelosi, Gingrich, etc etc etc….

    1. Obama gets a helluva lot more money in small donations (200 dollars and less) than others. This should be the type of funding that people in a democracy appreciate, not the kind that they criticize. 

  11. Some general comments on Citizens United:
    First, it should be remembered that the case was whether the government could censor a documentary (and according to Elena Kagan, then Solicitor General books) that mentioned a political candidate.  It seems to me that this is the very thing the first amendment was designed to protect.

    Second, what is freedom of the press if not freedom of speech applied to a corporation?

  12. I looked at the methodology for the Open Secrets table and the list of what they count doesn’t include all the 501c and super-pac money detailed in the graphic above, just money to parties, candidates, and candiates’ PACs. So if the opensecrets list shows lots of support for Democrats then than has to be taken in the context of all the money going to help Republican candidates through well-heeled 501c’s and super-pacs. Also big business and wall street  got behind Obama in ’08 or started hedging their bets once it started to look like McCain would lose. Since when it comes to big business, having the winning candidate take your calls later is more important than you getting the candiate you’d most prefer in office. 

    I agree with Greenwald that there’s something to be said for watching out for the 1st/4th amendment rights of non-profits if corporate personhood went away. But public for-profit  corporations, which put everything else below enriching their shareholders and face lawsuit if they do not, have interests that run counter to the public much of the time. Unions at least favor some things that help all workers which are a good portion of the public.  Giving corporations unlimited ability to use their money to influence the outcome of elections (without even having to expose their involvement until post-election) in this country via 501c/super-pacs is a Bad Thing.

    Finally, percentage of workers who are union has been going down in the U.S. for a long time. A trend that isn’t likely to change and one will tend to make unions poorer with less money to contribute in the decades to come.

    1. “But public for-profit  corporations, which put everything else below enriching their shareholders and face lawsuit if they do not, have interests that run counter to the public much of the time.”

      The First Amendment does not protect only speech that’s not for profit.  It does not protect speech that’s only in the public interest (What the heck would that even mean, anyway?  Once upon a time it was somehow in the public interest to lock up and confiscate the property of large numbers of American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry; if a business were to object to that sort of thing on the grounds that its employees would find it harder to make it to work on time if they were commuting from a prison camp, would that be counter to the public?)

      “Giving corporations unlimited ability to use their money to influence the outcome of elections (without even having to expose their involvement until post-election) in this country via 501c/super-pacs is a Bad Thing.”

      Then find a way to regulate that which doesn’t violate the First Amendment.  McCain-Feingold clearly isn’t it. 

  13. The most fucking obnoxious disqus failure ever happened to me in this thread. I was obsessing over my every word until things were perfectly crafted, and then WTF it wants my password again OK here you go OMGNOIFUCKINGHATEYOU!!!
    Now I am going to take a sleeping pill and try to forget this horror. Thanks boingboing for a fitting end to a terrible day! (you can eat this too)

    1. For future reference, there is a browser extension for both Firefox and Chrome called “Lazarus” that saves what you type into web forms (for a specified period, and there are various security options that keep your sensitive data safe) for just this type of situation.

      Funnily, though, since installing the extension I think I’ve only needed it once – I’m paranoid about form submissions since it’s happened to me so often, and usually do a select-all and copy if I suspect I may have a problem.

      Disqus did eat my comment once recently, in the same way you describe, but I somehow got it back without using Lazarus (don’t remember how, sorry).

    2. You could also use a browser for browsing and an editor for editing. I’ve never seen notepad crash, ever, and cut/paste is pretty easy. You have the means to solve your own problems, you don’t need to blame boing boing for them. 

  14. Money should not be seen as speech.

    Since wealth inequality can be (and is) astronomical, classifying money as speech means that a small group of people can speak much louder than everyone else. So loudly, in fact, that they, quite intentionally, make sure that the vast majority of people would never be able to be heard above them. 

    When the First Amendment was passed, the Founding Fathers likely assumed that no one but the government could ever acquire the power to unilaterally stifle and control the national public discourse. The events of the past few decades have clearly demonstrated this assumption to be wrong. We need to re-conceptualise our approach to free speech to ensure that this right remains protected from all impediments – public and private. Some minimum right to free speech must defined and guaranteed for each individual in relative proportion to the maximum amount of free speech that the most powerful individual can exercise. I should not be able to use my free speech rights to stifle your free speech rights. In a democracy, political power should not have to depend on wealth.

  15. If the one thing that happens from this Occupy business is that the media & the average citizen start paying attention to the fiscal corruption in politics– well, it is all legal, but I still will call it corruption on account of how I think it violates the ethics & principals of this country– I’ll consider it a win.  A huge win.  I know people like to talk about “Big X” & the “Y Lobby” but I mean, actual brass tacks, like the above graph.  If people just become aware of how corporate policy & concern had more bearing on Congress than voters or political party.  That would be a step in the right direction.

  16. Not sure anyone else pointed this out -but what year(s) do/does the data come from?  The chart makes it look like, “ZOMG, look at how much more the Republican’s spend.”  But if it is for the last couple years, of course it is going to be higher. They are running primary races right now – and they started very early into it. The Democrats won’t have to spend anything during that time, as their candidate is already chosen.

    It would be interesting to see how it all shakes out for the 2012 election. I think the numbers are going to be much closer. IIRC Obama out spend McCain by quite a bit.

  17. This graphic is an interesting metaphor, but I fear it is slightly misleading.   The sizes of stars would be compared by their 3D volume, whereas the sizes of the circles drawn here are in proportion by Area.   I expect Randal Munroe will take you to task over this when he too checks it, as I expect he will.  Edward Tufte will not be happy. But  I applaud the attempt to use astronomy to convey the idea of large numbers, even if the execution isn’t completely accurate.

  18. Actually, [Eric Myers], my response to this was that the use of circles leads people to underestimate the relative scale; I don’t think most viewers will perceive it as volume, but as area. However, I think that that was an error, since if you showed viewers two bars, one of which was 10x the size of the other (as in the top two solid sphere/circles), they would perceive the ratio as much greater.

    Simple test:



    Looks much stronger to me (though the perception of area vs. perception of length differs wildly amongst individuals)

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