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.
Donors who want to help the Republican Party solve the country’s problems should focus on two things: using their influence to get the Republican Party to focus on real, honest-to-goodness problem-solving; and using their financial resources not on cosmetic media buys, but on infrastructure building. The 2008 Obama campaign never shut down in Ohio and it’s still going to be working tomorrow. GOP donors who want to invest in the party’s future should direct their resources toward building a smarter comprehensive voter identification organization. In the long run, that will probably prove to be a more prudent — if less sexy — investment than writing a blank check to a super PAC.
Until Republicans start looking at problems — from the national debt to their racially lopsided base — and saying, “How do we solve this?” instead of “If you disagree, you are wrong,” the GOP will continue to lose and lose big.
Beltway Republicans often say that you can’t make problems go away by throwing money at them. On Tuesday, they proved themselves correct. As a result, while Karl Rove fussed over fake numbers and, in a panic, literally forced Fox News anchors to back away from their call in Ohio, the Democrats won.
But there’s a lesson in here for liberals, too. Next time you’re tempted to wax apoplectic about the evils of super PACs and corporate money, remember 2012. Remember that money doesn’t win elections in and of itself. Smart campaigns, solid messages, and savvy candidates do.
Joe Kildea is a media and rapid response consultant. Previously, Joe was Managing Editor at The Daily Caller. On the campaign trail, Joe was war room manager for Bush-Cheney ’04 and rapid response director for Rick Scott for Governor. In government, Joe served in the Bush administration in the White House Press Office. A proud Hoya, Joe holds a B.S.B.A. and J.D. from Georgetown and is a native Washingtonian. Follow him on twitter @Kildea.