David Axelrod, President Obama’s political strategist, recently invoked a common perception about the 2012 campaign by blaming the Supreme Court for empowering 21st-century “robber barons trying to take over the government.” But that explanation does not account for another development that probably has been just as influential as the court’s Citizens United decision in creating the flood of money into the election: the demise of the public financing system for elections, hastened by Mr. Obama’s decision four years ago to abandon it. So far, Mr. Obama, Mitt Romney and their respective parties have raised more than $1.2 billion — five times the amount raised by all “super PACs” combined — as they race frenetically for the cash they need to pay for television advertising, sophisticated technology and old-fashioned get-out-the-vote efforts. Nor is there any reason to expect a slowdown. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney plans to take the $92 million per candidate on offer from public financing for this general election season, and combined they have raised less than $10 million for spending on the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than 95 percent of their receipts so far are for use only through the late-summer nominating conventions, meaning they still have far to go to fill their general election bank accounts.
Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of campaign finance-law changes, predicts that $6 billion will be spent on races for Congress and the presidency by Election Day. Of that, he said, $5 billion will come from contributions that are publicly disclosed and limited by federal law, as opposed to the unregulated money flowing into outside groups.
The Citizens United decision that Democrats condemn was a clear signal that the Supreme Court takes a dim view of campaign finance restrictions. But it is not the only factor in the surge of money into politics, and its effects have been less profound than often portrayed. It loosened the conditions under which corporations and unions can back candidates, publicly or privately. Yet organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which since the ruling can use undisclosed donations to advocate victory or defeat of specific candidates, could previously use such donations to influence elections under the veil of “issue advocacy.”