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Donald Trump’s nomination as an unintended consequence of Citizens United

The biggest surprise of the 2016 election campaign was Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for president.

A key part of the story is that so many of the non-Trump candidates stayed in the race so long because everyone thought Trump was doomed, so they were all trying to grab Trump’s support when he crashed. Instead, Trump didn’t crash, and he benefited from the anti-Trump forces not coordinating on an alternative.

David Banks shares a theory of how it was that these candidates all stayed in so long:

I [Banks] see it as an unintended consequence of Citizens United. Before that [Supreme Court] decision, the $2000 cap on what individuals/corporations could contribute largely meant that if a candidate did not do well in one of the first three primaries, they pretty much had to drop out and their supporters would shift to their next favorite choice. But after Citizens United, as long as a candidate has one billionaire friend, they can stay in the race through the 30th primary if they want. And this is largely what happened. Trump regularly got the 20% of the straight-up crazy Republican vote, and the other 15 candidates fragmented the rest of the Republicans for whom Trump was the least liked candidate. So instead of Rubio dropping out after South Carolina and his votes shifting over to Bush, and Fiorino dropping out and her votes shifting to Bush, so that Bush would jump from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20% to 25%, etc., we wound up very late in the primaries with Trump looking like the most dominant candidate to field.

Of course, things are much more complex than this facile theory suggests, and lots of other things were going on in parallel. But it still seems to me that this partly explains how Trump threaded the needle to get the Republican nomination.

Interesting. I’d not seen this explanation before so I thought I’d share it with you.


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Not sure what Citizens United has to do with this. The limits on direct campaign contributions are unchanged. Maybe he meant an unintended effect of PACs or SuperPacs or 457s. All of these are more important than Citizens United….

    • John Hall says:

      The left is too busy hyperventilating about corporations as people in order to see your point.

      • Dalton Hance says:

        Ah yes, “the left.” The hated Other that is not “us”. Isn’t it so nice having a blanket label you can apply to roughly half of the country that allows you to simultaneously dismiss their viewpoint out of hand while also freeing yourself from having to actual think about specific implications and consequence of a particular policy or court decision?

        I for one advocate that we dispense with the fiction that our political dialogue has advanced much beyond simply identifying with ones own tribe against a rival. I proposed we dispose of the labels “liberal” and “conservative” for something much simpler and primal. Perhaps we can each pick a color and have ourselves a good old fashion chariot riot? Blues! No, Greens! It’d be so much simpler to just hate our neighbors without worrying about the moral perils of agreeing to a whole host of policy positions that come wrapped up with our current labels. I mean sure I hate paying taxes too, but does that mean that I also have to agree that climate change isn’t real and cheer whenever our military drops a bomb?

        I hope I don’t sound like I’m hyperventilating, but you know, I’m kind of concerned about the potential for our political system to be biased to the benefit a powerful minority. I kind of think corruption is a bit of a bummer. (Sorry!) Call me crazy, but I believe that in general government policy should be based on facts, clearly defined objectives, and rational evaluation of whether the proposed methods will achieve those objectives (and I think that in some cases a reasonable policy for achieving certain objectives may be to limit the federal governments role in certain areas). I hope me saying that doesn’t automatically mean I’m a “liberal.” Cause you know, I don’t really have a problem with GMOs and I think vaccines are pretty great.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      J (ao) said: “Not sure what Citizens United has to do with this”

      My understanding is that what Citizens United did was to overturn a previous ban on direct contributions by corporations and unions to organizations that engage in electioneering but are independent of official campaign organizations. Such organizations include SuperPACs (which must disclose their donors) and some nonprofit organizations (which are not not required to disclose donors).

    • Cody L Custis says:

      As is Trump’s personal wealth. And, Trump’s celebrity factor.

  2. tokenaustralian says:

    What are the chances of getting instant runoff voting in future primaries (or indeed the Main Event)?
    Wouldn’t that solve the core vote-splitting problem at issue here?

    As a bonus, maybe it would also address the root cause of this polarization of political discourse everyone seems so upset about? If the incentives are such that the most damaging thing you can do to a candidate is split their vote by partially agreeing with them, surely the only rational response is to split up into insular raging tribes?

    • IRV is generally terrible compared to score voting. Just go with score voting aka range voting. It gets around arrows theorem due to cardinality of score. It’s intuitive to most people, it’s common on product reviews and other areas of everyday life and it incentivizes candidates that have both broad and intense support (many people like them a lot)

  3. Zachary Thomas says:

    One reason Trump didn’t crash was was the fact that many Republican primaries were winner-take-all for the first place finisher. Thus, other candidates had a tough time catching up to Trump, even if their cumulative support was larger than his core base. I wonder if delegates were awarded proportionately to the votes received if Trump might have lost the nomination or if other candidates (like Bush or Cruz) could have come closer to beating him.

  4. Cody L Custis says:

    The Citizens United case addressed independent campaign expenditure, had nothing to do with personal campaign expenditure. Trump’s personal wealth swamped that of his Republican opponents, and would have been even more of a factor if independent campaign expenditure were limited.

    The bottom line is that I question not only Banks theory about Citizens United and Trump, but also if Banks understands the Citizens United ruling.

    • Andrew says:


      Just to clarify: Banks was not saying Citizens United explained how Trump could stay in the race. Rather, he was using Citizens United as an explanation of how so many of the other Republicans stayed in the race so long. Banks was arguing that, in the absence of such available funds, many of those candidates would’ve dropped out sooner. So Trump’s personal wealth and fame are not the issue here. Indeed, when you write, “Trump’s personal wealth swamped that of his Republican opponents, and would have been even more of a factor if independent campaign expenditure were limited,” that supports Banks’s argument: with less opportunity for other Republicans to get independent campaign funds, they might well have dropped out sooner, allowing Republican voters to coordinate on a candidate that was acceptable to more of them.

  5. David18 says:

    As to why Trump won, the Republic, Democratic, and media elites (and regarding BrExit in Britain the Labor, Conservative, and media elites) ignored the harms caused to the working class by globalization.

    Journalist/Author Thomas Frank (“What’s the Matter With Kansas”, “Listen, Liberal” wrote articles in The Guardian (and his title “Listen, Liberal”) which were ignored by the media elites and well as political elites on both sides of the aisle in both US and Britain. Even the with the warning of BrExit, the Democratic elites ignored the message.

    March 2016
    Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why

    July 2016 (post BrExit)
    The world is taking its revenge against elites. When will America’s wake up?

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Did other candidates actually stay in the race so long?,_2016

    This says that 5 dropped out before the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1, and 7 dropped out over the next three weeks, followed by Carson and Rubio in the first half of March, leaving Cruz and Kasich to trudge on into early May.

    It would seem like a better explanation would be that the Conventional Wisdom of 2012-13 — that the GOP lost in 2012 because of the mighty Hispanic vote demanding amnesty — was disastrously flawed. The one candidate who noticed that what everybody was saying didn’t make much sense got a huge advantage.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    An alternative theory is that Jeb Bush turned out to be a terrible candidate because he ran for President on the platform that he likes Mexicans more than Americans, which seemed cool to the GOP Donor Class but not to GOP voters.

    • Andrew says:


      There were three surprises regarding Trump in the election:

      1. Trump was the most popular Republican candidate in the early part of the primary election campaign.

      2. Republican primary voters did not coalesce around an alternative candidate.

      3. Trump maintained the support of nearly all Republicans during the general election campaign.

      I agree with you that Trump’s particular policy positions, and also his willingness not to disavow racists and conspiracy theorists, is an important part of the explanation to item 1.

      Item 3 is not a surprise given partisan polarization and the clearly different policies and attitudes offered by Democratic and Republican candidates.

      Banks’s story above addresses item 2, which is how the Republican party ended up choosing a candidate who was so unpopular.

      P.S. I do not think Bush ran on the platform that he likes Mexicans more than Americans.

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