It wasn’t long after the votes had been counted that the knives came out for Republican-leaning super PACs. For months, political pundits had speculated that spending by these outside groups could defeat Barack Obama, give the GOP a majority in the U.S. Senate, and reshape the political landscape. Instead, 2012 reaffirmed the status quo. Democrats retained the White House and expanded their majority in the Senate, while Republicans held the House of Representatives and most state legislatures. It was tempting to conclude that much of the money had been wasted.
Conservative bloggers denounced the super PACs for backing establishment candidates and lining the pockets of Beltway consultants. The left-leaning Sunlight Foundation claimed that most of the money spent by outside groups — two-thirds of their total expenditures, and about 99 percent of the money spent by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads — went to losing candidates. Charles Schumer crowed, “If [American] Crossroads was a business and Karl Rove was the CEO, he’d be fired for getting a poor return for his investors.” Obama strategist David Axelrod said GOP donors should demand a refund.
But let’s remember the world before center-right organizations played a role in advancing conservative policies and candidates. Recall Bill Clinton’s renting out the Lincoln Bedroom and selling seats on Air Force One? He did these things in pursuit of campaign cash; the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign amassed a war chest of $81 million for the spring and summer of 1996. While Bob Dole slogged through the GOP primaries, Democrats launched a then-unprecedented advertising blitz (organized by Dick Morris), spending $1 million or more each week from late 1995 until August of 1996. While the DNC pummeled Dole, labor unions added another $50 million in negative ads against GOP congressional candidates.
By the time Dole accepted the Republican presidential nomination in August and received $62 million in general-election funds from the U.S. Treasury, the race had moved irreversibly in Clinton’s favor. Dole lost in a landslide, carrying only 19 states. GOP congressional candidates were caught in the backwash, and Republicans lost seats in the House of Representatives.
The passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation in 2002 made it almost impossible for the parties to pay for advertising campaigns of that scale. It banned personal contributions to party committees in excess of $37,000 and outlawed all corporate contributions to these committees. These restrictions gave rise to a plethora of outside political-advocacy organizations operating under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, many of them dubbed “super PACs” (“PAC” meaning “political-action committee”). By prohibiting political parties from accepting large contributions, McCain-Feingold simply redirected the funds to these groups, which were often run by party operatives and in some cases did not have to disclose their donors.
Liberals moved first to create such groups. In 2004, George Soros, Peter Lewis, and other donors funded Americans Coming Together (ACT), which used a sophisticated database of liberal voters to encourage voter turnout. The Media Fund, another Soros-backed group, paid for political advertising. ACT field organizers fanned out across Ohio, Florida, and other swing states, registering voters, knocking on doors, and collecting absentee ballots.
Initially the Bush campaign pledged not to circumvent the spirit of McCain-Feingold by using outside groups. But as Democratic outside spending mushroomed, Republican donors were urged to contribute to Progress for America, a pro-Bush 527 that spent $27 million on ads in swing states. Most effective was “Ashley’s Story,” which showed President Bush comforting a child whose mother had died at the World Trade Center on September 11. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent another $9 million accusing John Kerry of exaggerating his military record in the Vietnam War.
After Bush won reelection, embittered Democrats vowed never to be “swift-boated” again. While they laid plans for even more outside spending in 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain made clear that he did not support similar activity by GOP-friendly groups. There was some principle in this, since McCain had authored a sweeping campaign-finance-reform law. Not wanting to offend the candidate, Republican donors closed their checkbooks to outside groups.
McCain’s policy amounted to unilateral disarmament. Obama reneged on his pledge to use only U.S. Treasury funds, and his campaign spent $750 million, nearly three times what Bush had raised just four years earlier. In some swing states, Obama outspent McCain five to one in paid advertising. The McCain campaign never aired a television ad in the important Miami market; it simply did not have the funds to spare. Outside liberal groups, led by labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, spent another $207 million.
After McCain’s landslide loss, Republican operatives scrambled to found new super PACs and add muscle to existing organizations. Rove and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie founded American Crossroads. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce beefed up its infrastructure for campaign activity. Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers in 2004, laid plans for a significantly greater investment in paid advertising. In 2010, these groups raised and spent an estimated $55 million, most of it on advertising and some on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. They played a critical role in the GOP’s gaining 63 House seats (the largest gain by the GOP since 1938), six Senate seats, and over 700 state-legislative seats.
After this, Democrats’ fear of conservative super PACs verged on full-blown panic. White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton left his job to head Priorities USA. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign launched an air assault on Mitt Romney that looked a lot like what Clinton and Bush did in 1996 and 2004 respectively. Romney emerged from the GOP primaries bloodied and broke.
To understand what happened last month, start by looking at spending by official sources — the presidential campaigns and the parties. Obama spent $225 million on ads in the spring and early summer. Most of the ads depicted Romney as a rapacious vulture capitalist, a looter of companies, and a plutocrat unconcerned about the poor. From April through Election Day, Obama outspent Romney in paid advertising by a total of $154 million. It was the most lopsided spending advantage of a presidential campaign in the history of American politics.
Obama aired $30 million more in ads than Romney did in Ohio, enough to buy six weeks’ worth of heavy advertising. He outspent Romney by $27 million in Florida, $21 million in Virginia, and $16 million in New Hampshire, a total advantage of $94 million in four states Romney lost by 340,000 votes. It was just as bad in the key Senate races, where Democrats outspent Republican candidates by $60 million.
Republican outside organizations did their best to make up for this Democratic advantage in official spending. A number of conservative outside groups, including Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and Restore Our Future (the pro-Romney super PAC), spent an estimated $175 million on advertising, some of it in Romney’s behalf, some of it advocating particular policy proposals. The Chamber of Commerce does not publicly announce its media buys, but it played in twelve Senate races (backing the winner in three) and 40 House races (backing the winner in 20).
This eliminated Obama’s spending advantage. From the time Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination in April until Labor Day, Romney and conservative groups spent $249 million, while Obama and liberal organizations spent $198 million. But because the Obama campaign could purchase ads at the lowest rate offered by television stations and many of the outside groups were running issue ads that cost more, they could not ultimately match Obama ad for ad, even as they surpassed him in dollars spent.
Had these groups not been active, Obama would have been reelected by a much healthier margin, and he probably would have expanded his margin of victory in every swing state relative to 2008. Instead, his margin fell by a million votes in the top nine battleground states. He became the first incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to be reelected with fewer votes in the Electoral College than he won in his first election, and the first since Andrew Jackson in 1832 to be reelected with a smaller share of the popular vote. (I am excepting Franklin Roosevelt’s reelections in 1940 and 1944.)
Obviously, the goal of conservative donors and organizers was not to reduce Obama’s margin of victory; it was to defeat him. In this sense 2012 was an expensive learning experience, similar to what the Democrats went through in 2004. To be successful in the future, conservative groups will have to take a hard look at what worked and what did not work. They will need to deploy resources more effectively. One area ripe for improvement is the ground game. Others are data mining and online marketing directed at specific voter categories, including such non-traditional voters as Hispanics and single women. The air war in many swing states in 2012 resembled mutual assured destruction, with thousands of ads canceling one another out in a draw. Paid advertising remains critical, but the rise of microtargeting technology is making it possible and important to contact individual voters.
Conservative super PACs and outside groups are not a cure-all. They cannot replace the candidate or the party structure. But to return to a world without them would be to entrench a spending advantage for labor unions and Democratic organizations.
Democrats are not disarming — far from it. Politico reports that Priorities USA, EMILY’S List, Planned Parenthood, the opposition-research group American Bridge, and other liberal outside groups recently held a strategy meeting in the nation’s capital. Some of these groups are already soliciting donations and plan to expand their activities into state races and ballot initiatives. As long as it remains illegal for a corporation or an individual to give a large contribution to a political party or a candidate, outside organizations and super PACs will be inevitable. The only question is which side will make better use of them.
– Mr. Reed is the CEO of Century Strategies, a public-affairs and public-relations firm, and the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.