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.