"Citizens United hasn't changed everything" seemed to be the claim coming out of a series of articles over the past few days. First there was word that Romney's campaign didn't have nearly as much cash as was predicted and feared. Then the New York Times report that the pro-Obama SuperPACs were finally competitive with their pro-Romney rivals. And New York Magazine broke down the cash comparisons of the two campaigns in key states arguing, with its provocative title "how the election wasn't bought."
This should be a sigh of relief for many of us who were concerned that dirty, secret corporate money was going to wipe out democracy this year. But I'm no sighing and I'm not relieved. Citizens United is still bad for our democracy... and still bad for this election cycle.
First of all, Democrats raising as much as Republicans doesn't mean their money is any more pure. Maybe Wall Street has focused on the GOP - but defense contractors have been supporting the Obama effort. Obama may have more small dollar donors than Romney, but he has plenty of support from the super-rich, lobbyists and power-brokers who expect returns on their investment. Obama's competitive fundraising may mean this election isn't bought for Romney - but it doesn't mean the buyers haven't bought the election. In a race of nearly limitless money, those who can pay more get to play more.
We'll see this in policy decisions down the road: whether it's the major role insurers played in shaping Obamacare, or the defense industry's motivation to keep us in a state of perpetual war. Whoever wins in November, somebody paid to help them get there.
The second impact that this amount of money has is in shaping the presidential race itself. You have a relatively popular incumbent running for reelection. On the other side, you have a man who embodies the 1 percent, insults the 47 percent, has never been embraced by his own party's base, yet has been beholden to that base in a way that has chased away all of the highly-prized independent voters, can't connect with the public and can't find any spark. Yet polls show it's close. It would be hard to explain that reality without seeing the impact of deep coffers.
As a result, the candidates also keep needing to debate what big donors want them to debate. So the public is treated to an expensive ad campaign for pet issues of major donors and industry backers. Money isn't just going to skew how they govern; it twists how they campaign.
Citizens United's biggest impact, though, won't be in the presidential race. Despite the Obama campaign's dire warnings, most believed that an incumbent would be able to raise the money he needed to stay competitive. In Senate and Congressional races, though, that won't be the case.
Until recent polls shows Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio pulling ahead, the relentless flow of SuperPAC money was making a close race in Ohio. Money may make the difference in key Senate races in Wisconsin, Nevada and Connecticut. In Massachusetts and Virginia, where candidates for both parties are gifted fundraisers, the hopefuls need to keep speaking to donors more than they can to voters.
The Senate could swing with the momentum of corporate and SuperPAC money. Numerous House seats and countless state legislative races can be turned by investments that are relatively small for corporations and mega-millionaires. The real impact of money in politics won't be as obvious at the top of the ticket -- but it is already transforming these lower-ticket races.
Americans know this. We might root for one party or another and be happy when we see fundraising totals. But we also root for our democracy and know that it's being done a disservice by the floods of campaign cash. This cycle we may be electing a president, but the real fight for fair elections has to continue beyond November 6th, to ensure we have a democracy we continue to be proud of.