Most of the media coverage of the 2012 campaign treats a Republican advantage in super-PAC spending as a given. This assumption is echoed by increasingly dire comments from President Obama, his advisers, and other Democrats.
At a New York City fundraiser last month, President Obama lamented that opposition to his reelection bid will be fueled by “$500 million in super-PAC negative ads that are going to be run over the course of the next five months that will try to feed on those fears and those anxieties and that frustration.”
“We put out a fund-raising letter because we’re facing about a billion dollars of super-PAC spending,” Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, told CNN. He has also referred to “the Rove and Koch brothers contract killers over there in super-PAC land.”
“With every passing week, Democratic insiders are becoming more and more panicked that, by November, their Republican opponents will have buried them under a mountain of money,” reports The New Republic. “The GOP money machine — that is, American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove; Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — has vowed to spend $1 billion combined before Election Day.”
The only catch is that the actual spending by super PACs so far this year tells a quite different story. The truth is that the super PAC founded by top Obama staffers and its aligned “independent” groups are outspending groups that oppose the president by roughly two to one.
According to Federal Election Commission data filed from January 2011 through July 3, super PACs and all groups making “independent expenditures” in the political arena have spent $35.3 million in opposition to Romney, and only $9 million in opposition to Obama. Rove’s American Crossroads, for example, has spent $3.1 million this cycle. But only $158,126.17 of that has been spent in efforts opposing President Obama, and a separate $7,500 has been spent on Web ads supporting Mitt Romney. For perspective, the group spent $358,202.98 in mid-June in just one expenditure on “TV/Media Purchases” opposing Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine in Virginia, and then spent the same sum a week later in the same race.
What’s more, the advertising and other efforts by Obama’s allies have been relentlessly negative. Every expenditure by every independent group must be filed with the FEC (usually within a matter of days) and must be classified as in support of or in opposition to a particular candidate. The amounts range from millions of dollars for advertising campaigns to $12.50 for “staff time” spent on a press release or e-mail to support or oppose a candidate. Overall, in addition to the $35.3 million and $9 million mentioned above, independent groups have spent $7.7 million on ads and efforts classified as in support of Romney, while they spent only $961,854.62 in support of Obama.
One might assume that the heavy ratio of anti-Romney spending to anti-Obama spending stems from the Republican primary campaign, and that does indeed account for a portion of the disparity. About $14.9 million of the “oppose Romney” total came from the pro–Newt Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future. The Red, White, and Blue Fund, a super PAC backing Rick Santorum, spent $687,306.75 in anti-Romney efforts.
But that still leaves a two-to-one spending ratio of liberal anti-Romney efforts to conservative anti-Obama efforts. In fact, the president’s allies run the single biggest-spending and most negative super PAC of all: Priorities USA Action, founded by Obama’s former deputy White House press secretary, Bill Burton; Sean Sweeney, the former chief of staff to Rahm Emanuel; and Harold Ickes, who was deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. This super PAC has spent $13.5 million in opposition to Romney so far, outspending all the super-PAC efforts opposing the president combined. While Priorities USA Action is often described as a “pro-Obama” super PAC in news coverage, it has yet to spend a single penny that it categorizes as “supporting” President Obama; all of its spending is classified as “opposing” Mitt Romney.
Indeed, almost every major liberal group has spent funds on ads or other efforts attacking Romney. The following totals are just what these groups have spent in efforts to “oppose Romney”:
Conservative groups have also been active, but less frequently at the presidential level:
Despite the liberal narrative of a deluge of outside cash from super PACs, the outside spending for all races, including Senate, House, and gubernatorial races, is roughly parallel to that of the major presidential campaigns. As of July 3, all independent groups and super PACs combined had spent $206.7 million, according to FEC records. Through May 31, the Romney campaign had spent $105.2 million, and the Obama campaign had spent $148.7 million.
By the way, it is worth noting that data filed with the FEC can contain errors. According to one record, a super PAC aligned with the Democratic Governors Association, DGA Action, spent $172.63 on January 17 on online advertising in “support” of Romney, and Colbert’s PAC spent $326.25 on “ad production costs” in support of Romney. DGA Action is also listed as spending $416.96 in opposition to “MITT ROMNE [sic].”
Of course, it’s possible that the super PACs opposing Obama will indeed, by the time November 6 rolls around, have spent the gargantuan sums that Obama and Axelrod talk about; groups on the right may be holding their resources in reserve for the final months of the campaign. But it is perhaps not that surprising to find that the media’s preferred narrative of an incumbent president whose principal obstacle to reelection is his opponents’ money does not match the figures for actual amounts spent so far. As many have noted, the media’s traditional lament about “too much money in politics” was strangely quiet during Obama’s record fundraising in 2008; it is easier to quote Axelrod than to examine public records and compile spreadsheets.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.