Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC San Diego

UC San Diego Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC San Diego

Dark Money and Political Parties After Citizens United.


This dissertation, broadly, focuses on how the ability to make political donations anonymously changed American politics. Culminating the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, the rise of nonprofit corporations as a conduit for campaign money means that a large portion of spending in American elections cannot be connected to any individual donors creating a system akin to the Australian ballot for money in politics. I explore how this change affected three facets of American politics; how donors behave when they can give anonymously, how being able to shield ones donors affects the type of candidates an interest group supports and finally how the legal green-light for nonprofits to spend in elections changed which nonprofit organizations became financially involved with each other.

First, I developed a complete accounting of grants made between nonprofit organizations built from over 2 million digitized IRS forms made public in the summer of 2016 as the result of a lawsuit. My dissertation is not only the first project that examines these filings at scale, but also the first time this full network has been mapped. Using a network science algorithm that partitions the full graph into meaningful communities, I develop a theory of what I term dark parties or groups of nonprofits linked financially that make independent expenditures in Congressional elections.

Next, I show that while dark money organizations form networks similar to those of traditional political parties, the types of candidates they prefer are vastly different. In a chapter of my dissertation, I show that these organizations prefer candidates farther from the ideological center and are especially active during the primary elections that traditional parties tend to eschew.Using a mixed-methods approach, I show that being able to give anonymously has important consequences not just for interest group behavior, but for donor behavior as well. I examine a list of donors that I uncovered from court filings to a nationally active dark money organization that spent

on two ballot initiatives in California during the 2012 election. This list is the only publicly available list of dark money donors in circulation today and the first time such a list is studied by an academic researcher. I show that the donors to this organization, which supported two conservative positions, were much more liberal in their non-anonymous political giving than donors who gave transparently. This finding shows that the ability to obscure ones identity lets a donor behave differently than they would when their donations are subject to public scrutiny.

Finally, while ample literature on the effects of disclosure exists, examinations into the motivations of why donors choose anonymity in their political giving remains unstudied. I present two survey experiments that seek to answer this question. First, I present survey results from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study that show that past giving to candidates from the opposite party that one normally supports correlates with an increased willingness to pay a premium to keep one’s political giving secret. Next, turning to another survey experiment, I find that potential voters are more likely to react negatively to an actual argument by opponents of a ballot measure when they know the names of the actual donors to a dark money group that opposed it. Combined, these results indicate both a social pressure rationale for obscuring one’s political giving and a strategic goal of distancing an electoral campaign from controversial donors.

Taken as a whole, this research answers a broader question related to the balance of power between political parties and interest groups. Political parties perform a myriad of functions crucial to the maintenance of government that our democracy as presently conceived would be unthinkable

without them. Despite their ubiquity, however, parties are notoriously hard to define. Parties exist

beyond the formal structure of party officers and official state chapters, encompassing a myriad

of outside actors whowhile not bearing the official stamp of the organizationare crucial to its

mission. The balance of power between these interest groupsbroadly definedand the formal party

organizations are dictated by a myriad of factors–such as legal limitations, resource constraints and

differing electoral goals.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View