Discuss as:

Big-bucks presidential fundraisers still vital in Citizens United era

At President Obama’s birthday fundraiser in Chicago tonight his supporters can see and be seen at a dinner and concert (featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, among others) at a cost of up to $35,800 per person.  The money will be divided between the president’s re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

But this event is different from Obama’s 2008 fundraisers in that it’s part of the first presidential campaign conducted under the freewheeling rules set by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision – a ruling Obama denounced, saying would “open the floodgates for special interests.”

That decision allows donors to give undisclosed amounts of money to groups that run TV and radio ads calling for a candidate’s defeat or election.  It also allows corporations, trade associations and labor unions to directly spend money on ads calling for a candidate's election or defeat.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports.

The law prohibits these groups from coordinating their activities with a candidate’s campaign.  (In July, NBC's Domenico Montaro took a look at the Super PAC impact, watch here).

Aided in part by the Citizens United ruling and prior ones, independent groups unconnected with a particular candidate or political party spent than $300 million in the 2010 midterm elections. They’re likely to play a big role in 2012 as well.

So do such fundraisers such as Obama’s Wednesday night event at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago fade in importance in the 2012 campaign because so much money will likely be spent by those outside groups operating under the Citizens United ground rules?

Short answer: Not at all.

Here’s why: as a presidential candidate, “you want to have control of your message, you want to call the shots and be able to spend the money where you want to spend it,” said Michael Beckel, an analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks money in campaigns.

And in the era of Citizens United, a robust campaign treasury is needed to provide a shield or counterstrike capability when the outside group suddenly unleashes a barrage of negative ads in a decisive state. “Any candidate will be fearful that outside groups will spend money against him, and therefore he’d want to be able to have enough money to defend himself,” Beckel said.

Larry Noble, the former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission who’s now in private practice at the Skadden, Arps law firm in Washington, said, “I’m sure they (those running the presidential campaigns) are very happy that there are independent groups out there supporting them. The practical reality is that it’s not hard for those independent groups to know what the campaign is doing and to make sure their activities are supportive of the campaign. But at the same time, the campaigns would rather have control of the money themselves.”

But he added that independent groups can do what the campaigns themselves are sometimes reluctant to do: run caustically negative ads attacking an opponent. “They can say things the campaign wants to keep a distance from,” Noble said.

This may be especially true in Obama’s case since he appealed to some independent voters in 2008 as the man who said he wouldn’t engage in “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” independent groups can dispense those three Ps -- petty, partisan poison -- as much as they’d like.

But consider this hypothetical under the current campaign finance law: a strategist working for the Obama campaign has a discussion at the local Caribou Coffee with a strategist working for a well-funded outside group supporting Obama.

If the Obama strategist were to casually mention, “We don’t anticipate we’ll be investing in TV and radio in Missouri or Georgia….” and if the outside group then went ahead and spent money on TV ads in those states, would that be considered coordination – which is prohibited by campaign finance law?

“As hard it may be to understand why, that may not be coordination,” said Noble. “There’s still some disagreement at the FEC over exactly what that means…. Under the new FEC coordination rules that may not be coordination. You’d have to look at timing and whether you are talking about specific ads and what those ads said.”