The greatest positive role the press has played in terms of its coverage of campaign finance issues in 2010 was to ferret out these now-secret contributions. I point especially to a series of reports in the New York Times that were very educational in teaching us how easy it is for corporate spenders and others to hide behind innocuous-sounding groups like Americans for Job Security or Coalition to Protect Seniors. I mentioned these Times pieces in my Slate piece. [CJR, too, has praised the Times’s work and did a Q&A in October with one of the investigative reporters behind the effort, Mike McIntire]. That was something the press did well.
Sometimes covering election law issues is like watching paint dry. It is, I think, a challenge to make these issues interesting and accessible for a general reader. In this election there was just so much money and so much secrecy, so the stories were probably of broader interest. I cannot recall a case since Bush v. Gore in 2000 when the public has shown such interest in a Supreme Court case. That helps to make the case for covering the impact of Citizens United.
If you were a reporter on the campaign finance beat, what stories would you pursue both right now and looking toward 2012?
One issue is the parts and makeup of groups that are taking advantage of the new campaign finance environment. In 2010 it was mostly Republican-leaning groups such as American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS that took advantage of the ability to use corporate money and to apply secrecy to contributions. It appears the Obama campaign team is signaling that this would be okay on the Democratic side as well. So it will be interesting to see the efforts made in that arena.
One area that has been tremendously under-covered has been the complete break down of the enforcement powers of the Federal Election Commission. There was a good story in the New York Times and one at TPM Muckraker but [not much] apart from that. The fact that the three Republican commissioners in lockstep have taken a de-regulatory position well beyond that of the Supreme Court is pretty startling, and troubling to someone like me who believes that campaign finance laws on the book should be enforced strongly.
One example is the three Republican commissioners took a position on disclosure of contributions funding election-related ads that made it child’s play to avoid disclosure except in extremely narrow circumstances.
The other thing I’d point out is that President Obama’s 2008 campaign was able to raise $745 million under the old campaign finance rules. It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll fare under the new rules. It would not surprise me to see both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees raising over a billion dollars each. The question will be how this election differs from other elections in terms of, for example, the interests of small donors. [In 2008] Obama was remarkably successful at attracting small contributions from a large number of contributors. Whether or not small contributors will be discouraged or motivated to give in a post-Citizens United atmosphere is an interesting question.