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How Cities Benefit From Citizens United

Photo by Chris Isherwood.

In liberal circles, unregulated campaign finance is often portrayed as the “Big Bad Wolf” blowing down the house of American democracy. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and the subsequent creation of super PACs is thought to be causing the political apparatus to focus primarily on the elite instead of on the decreasingly significant majority.  They may be right, but the elites are not the only group that is benefiting from the new campaign finance laws — cities are too.

The conversation about campaign finance and the disproportionate distribution of power among Americans is often oversimplified. Particularly, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission is overemphasized in discussions about political influence. That isn’t to say that Citizens United didn’t catalyze a flood of money into elections. The 2012 Presidential Election surpassed $2 billion in cost and is the most expensive election in American history to date. However, if we put aside the sheer quantity of money spent on contemporary American elections — especially federal elections — it becomes clear that the geographic distribution of where money originates is crucial to understanding who wields power in American elections.

It may not seem surprising that the largest metro areas in the United States are the largest sources of campaign donations. Indeed, these cities are heavily populated. Looking more closely, however, it becomes clear that political donations are heavily skewed within urban areas themselves. For federal elections in 2008, New York, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston contributed a total of $726 million — more than the bottom 36 contributing states combined. Residents of New York City’s Upper East Side (comprised of the top 5 donating zip codes) contributed $72 million to federal elections in 2008. To add insult to injury, only 4 percent of Americans contributed in 2008 and 0.1 percent of Americans were responsible for 60 percent of total contributions.

American urban centers are populated, but their large populations do not seem to account for their tendency to donate heavily to political candidates — their wealthiest citizens do. Cities are home to large clusters of poverty, but they are also magnets for educated and skilled workers. Cities contain headquarters of large corporations and consequently are home to the professionals that work with these firms. Because they are financially stable, this group has the means and motive to impact political causes and engage with policy. As home to this high-earning group, cities reap the benefits and are increasingly the focus of elections.

As the influence of cities increases, it’s prudent to ask: which party will benefit the most? Which party will be able to capitalize on this trend? In grappling with the unique nuances of cities and their role in the nation, party affiliation is a useful marker. One interesting myth is that American cities are inherently liberal. While large metro areas tend to lean slightly left, their preference for the Democrats is slight. Indeed, in some election cycles, the Democratic lead over Republicans is barely by one percentage point. This has profound implications for national policy. Given the means of urban elites and the plurality of funding funneling from cities into federal elections, one urban citizen can be more crucial to a candidate’s success than a handful of rural citizens. While the rural citizen may or may not be more likely to vote, the interests of the urban citizen will define the modes in which campaigns portray themselves and the platforms that they construct. Even if Democrats win a majority of urban votes in national elections, Republicans will benefit from the skewed focus on wealthy city-dwellers. Indeed, based on the geographic distribution of donations, most funds used to win Republican votes in rural areas will inevitably be traceable to a handful of cities.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has opened the floodgates to a whole new era of political capital. Elites are now able to donate more than they ever were before and, as a result, the influence of cities is increasing. As more cities become hubs of political fundraising in America, the political landscape is bound to change, furthering a trend that started over one hundred years ago during the industrial revolution.

About the Author

Alejandro Victores '16 is a public health concentrator who enjoys long walks on the beach and reading The Economist.