2012 and the not-so-super PACs

In the first presidential contest of the Citizens United era, super PACs and their leading front man, Karl Rove, seem to have lost spectacularly.

Super PACs spent at least $629 million this election cycle. The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future spent more than $143 million. The Rove-led American Crossroads reportedly raised $300 million, two-thirds of which it spent on the presidential election. On the other side, pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action spent $67.4 million. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Republican-leaning super PACs spent $355 million, compared to $272 million from Democratic-leaning super PACs.

Combine all that with the fact that Romney and Obama each spent roughly $1 billion on their campaigns, and you end up with the most expensive election in American history. The question is whether it paid off. For the Republican Party, the answer couldn’t be louder or clearer: No.

The picture looks even worse for the GOP at the state level. In the Virginia Senate race, super PACs spent roughly $24 million attacking Democrat Tim Kaine and supporting Republican George Allen. On the flip side, only about $13 million was spent in support of Kaine and in opposition to Allen.

Guess who won?

The same is true in Ohio, where pro-Republican Josh Mandel super PACs spent about $21 million, while roughly $17 million was spent to help re-elect Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

And in Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly beat out Republican Richard Mourdock despite being vastly outspent on the super PAC front.

Everyone knew that the Republican Party’s fundraising prowess this cycle would be tough to beat. But Republicans fundamentally miscalculated not only on how best to use super PACs to their advantage, but also on what role the super PAC machine plays in national elections.

For starters, much of 2011 saw little to no action from pro-GOP super PACs. The void gave the Obama campaign time to prepare, strategize, prepare, and strategize some more. In 2011, the Obama campaign reportedly spent $126 million just getting ready for the general election. The Romney camp spent less than a third of that.

The other problem came with coordination. It’s obvious now that many voices screaming many messages are not as effective as one loud voice with one loud, solid message. And according to The Washington Post, during one week in the summer of 2012, the three biggest super PACs all had anti-Obama ads running on three different subjects. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign was using a different message. It didn’t work.

But probably the most important takeaway is this: running ads is easy; convincing the American people you can solve the country’s problems is not.