How Citizens United helps Trump and Sanders, and other 2016 twists

Much has been said about the unexpected popularity of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, but those are not the only instances of the 2016 campaign cycle defying conventional wisdom.

Critics have long attacked the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, which allows corporate donations to be treated as free speech, saying that the decision allows money to dictate political outcomes. They may have a point about corporate spending on congressional races.

But what about the impact of the decision on the 2016 presidential contest? In one sense, the Citizens United ruling has helped Mr. Trump and Sen. Sanders to set themselves apart from the crowd by emphasizing their lack of support from big donors. Absent Citizens United, if all the candidates depended on the same size donations, this distinction wouldn’t exist.

Mr. Trump criticizes his rivals–Jeb Bush in particular– for taking contributions from big donors and says that his wealth immunizes him to pleas from special interests. As Mr. Trump continues saying things that in past campaigns might have ruled him out as a viable candidate, his rhetoric keeps drawing free media coverage. If he keeps this up, and eventually wins the Republican nomination–an outcome that looks less and less implausible–he might not need to use public funds, for which he would qualify as a major-party nominee, for advertising. It has been standard campaign practices to run continuous ads, at least to thwart attacks by opponents and to remind voters of what’s at stake. But as long as he gets free media coverage Mr. Trump won’t be dependent on advertising, and coverage of Mr. Trump’s campaign is likely to increase if his poll numbers stay up and if he wins some early primaries. He might then be able to spend public funds during a general-election campaign on building a voter turnout network–one advantage he doesn’t appear to have and one that many in the Republican Party may not want to make fully available to him, given his attacks on the party’s establishment.

The Bernie Sanders boomlet also defies the conventional wisdom that big money talks when it comes to presidential races. An Iowa poll out Saturday showed Sen. Sanders gaining on Hillary Clinton. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders can point to the big donors supporting Mrs. Clinton and say that he will not be beholden to them.

Could Vice President Joe Biden also find a way to upset conventional wisdom should he enter the race? Here’s one option: It’s been considered a mistake to choose a running mate well before a candidate has locked up the nomination. At this point, Mr. Biden, lacking campaign infrastructure and resources in key early states, faces a tough path to his party’s nomination. Voters might also be angry at his late entry after Sen. Sanders (and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Jim Webb) had the courage to challenge Mrs. Clinton when many perceived her nomination to be all but inevitable. Mr. Biden needs enthusiasm of the sort that would be generated by announcing Sen. Elizabeth Warren as his running mate (or giving a wink and a nod that is whom he intends to run with in the general). Sen. Warren could siphon off small-money donors currently going to Sen. Sanders who are still seeking an alternative to Mrs. Clinton.

So many “rules” of politics are being upended this year it is getting difficult to keep track of them.


Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal