BOSTON (MarketWatch) -- Everyone seems to agree that last week's landmark Supreme Court decision on money and politics is, in the cliché of our times, a "game-changer." But what does it actually mean? Here are five contrarian points.
How much has actually changed?
Our national politics are already bought and paid for like a flat-screen TV. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think-tank that tracks money in politics, politicians spent a remarkable $5.4 billion, in total, running for federal office in 2007-2008. That includes everything from the $730 million spent by Barack Obama down to the $55,000 spent by Carol Miller, an independent, in a congressional race in New Mexico.
U.S. Supreme Court building
That $5.4 billion total jumped 30% from 2004 and a stunning 76% from 2000. You can bet it will rocket still further for the 2012 presidential election, especially in the wake of this election decision.
Maybe this won't change the nature of politics so much as the price.
'A major victory'
President Barack Obama called the decision "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests." Who's he kidding? Out of these groups he went three-for-four last election.
Among Wall Street banks and other securities and investment firms, the president raised $14.8 million in campaign contributions, while John McCain only got $8.7 million. (The data come from the Center for Responsive Politics, based on an analysis of campaign filings. Money donated comes from individuals working for companies and from Political Action Committees).
From HMOs and health-services companies, the president outraised McCain $1.4 million to $428,000. Among major industries, big oil and gas were among the few that broke for McCain, by $2.4 million to $900,000. As for "powerful interests": How you define them usually depends on where you stand. But the Center for Responsive Politics tracks the top all-time donors from 1989 to 2008 on a "Heavuy Hitters" list. Ten of the top twelve have favored the Democrats -- most of them are unions, led by the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees -- and the other two are balanced between the two. The top Heavy Hitter to favor the Republicans notably over the past twenty years, the American Medical Association, comes in at 15.
Honoring the Constitution
Meanwhile right-wingers are hailing the decision on "constitutional grounds." Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, cheered it for "restoring the First Amendment rights of [corporations and unions] by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day."
Obama Proposes Middle-Class Plan
Watch footage of President Barack Obama addressing a meeting of the Middle-Class Task Force, headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Video courtesy of Fox Business Network.
What nonsense. The Republicans care about the Constitution about as much as I care about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Right-wingers are gambling that this decision will help them catch up on fundraising. They may be right, because corporate boards tend to favor Republicans with their money, even, in many cases, where the actual staff give to the Democrats. But in fund-raising, no ideology succeeds like success.
If the CRP data show anything, it's that donors favor the party in power. The Democrats led through 1994, when they lost Congress. The Republicans led for about a decade. Since 2006, when the Democrats have outnumbered the GOP in both houses, they've had a big lead. Money follows incumbents.
Corporate political identity
If you are a chief executive of a major corporation and you think this is suddenly open season on political campaigning, stop and take a deep breath.
Do you want your customers to think of your company as Republican, or Democrat? Have you thought this through?
Right now some companies have clear leanings, either through their official political action committees, the donations of staff, or both (if you are a customer worried about where your dollars may end up that may be a difference without a distinction).
So for example contributions from retailers Home Depot Inc. (NYSE:HD) and Best Buy Co. (NYSE:BBY) have heavily favored Republicans in recent years, while those from Rite-Aid Corp. (NYSE:RAD), Gap Inc. (NYSE:GPS) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (NASDAQ:COST) have leaned towards the Democrats.
But we live in an increasingly bitter, caustic and partisan age. As the money flows become more explicit, companies that get too publicly engaged risk alienating more people than they win over.
Who wants to be the Halliburton Co. (NYSE:HAL) of home goods or hamburgers?
Back in 2004, some Republicans stopped buying H.J. Heinz Co.'s (NYSE:HNZ) ketchup because of the link with presidential hopeful John Kerry's wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry. Some young Republicans even launched "W." ketchup as a rival. Maybe we ain't seen nothin' yet.
And the winner is... surely Big Media.
The only outcome from this ruling that you can predict with any certainty is that the flow of money into politics is surely going to increase. It's increasing anyway. If it just adds 10% to the money spent in 2008 that's another $540 million flowing through the system. A lot of that is going to go on advertising, for the simple reason that it has to go somewhere. I find it astonishing that anyone buys something as a result of commercials, because most commercials are completely useless, but apparently people do.
So this ruling should be huge for media outlets. A lot of the extra dollars will presumably end up online, a windfall for the likes of Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) , Yahoo Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) and others. But they won't be alone. Maybe we should all be purchasing billboards in big swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Brett Arends is the author of "Storm Proof Your Money," on managing your finances in this era of turmoil.