Millions of dollars were raised and spent, swing states reeled from endless political ads, and now that US President Barack Obama has been re-elected, the soul searching begins.
What happened to the powerful Republican “Super PACs” and advocacy groups that staked all in a failed attempt to ensure the Democrat’s defeat?
This year’s campaign was the first real test for “super” political action committees (PACs) — in part spawned by a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling known as “Citizens United” that did away with limits on corporate and union spending in elections.
Campaign finance reformers on the left had feared the change in the law would give Republicans an advantage. Democrats were initially reluctant to embrace Super PACs, in part out of squeamishness, having resisted such unfettered campaign funding by big business. However, faced with the massive amounts of money being spent on the other side, they eventually came around and contributed enough cash to their own Super PACs to put up a successful fight.
Conservative Super PACs say they did all they could to help Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stand up to Obama’s well-oiled campaign fundraising machine, which ensured his early and dominant presence on the airwaves.
Indeed, more than a dozen free-spending groups spent nearly US$500 million propping up Romney’s run, first helping him float to the top in the Republican nomination and then sustaining him through a money gap in the summer.
However, in the end, the unprecedented US$6 billion spent on this election — a grand total by campaigns and outside groups in the primary, congressional and presidential races, with one-sixth of that funding presidential advertising alone — became so excessive that the impact of the ads waned. Experts say this proved the importance of the candidate’s own activity and once again rendered successful a strategy of leveraging the power of incumbency to define the challenger early in the race.
In an e-mail to supporters shortly after his victory on Tuesday night, Obama thanked his grassroots organizers, and said: “Today is the clearest proof yet that, against the odds, ordinary Americans can overcome powerful interests.”
However, the Democrats also made good use of the new system. The main pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, repeatedly hit out against Romney, painting him as a corporate raider.
Priorities USA Action reported investing nearly US$70 million in digital, TV and radio advertising, federal disclosures show.
And despite its squeaky start as Democrats took time to warm to the notion of Super PACs, the attacks on Romney went largely unanswered.
Bill Burton, who runs Priorities, has called this “one of the biggest surprises in the entire election,” and in private, Republican operatives also acknowledge that it was a big disappointment.
“They missed the most important role they could have had — saving Romney’s back when he was being attacked,” Burton said of rival groups, such as the pro-Romney Restore Our Future and the formidable Crossroads duo of Super PAC and non-profit run by former US president George W. Bush aide Karl Rove.
The two Crossroads groups spent nearly US$150 million on advertising in the presidential race, according to tallies provided by Republican sources. Tax-exempt groups are not required to officially disclose all of the spending or donors.
Restore Our Future has reported spending nearly US$100 million on creating and placing ads, according to federal disclosures.
Of course, Priorities’ ads alone did not cost Romney the election, but they showcase what Republican Super PAC operatives have called the dichotomy in strategic approaches to the race: Democrats got vitriolic and personal, while top Republican groups largely steered clear of attacking Obama personally or even talking of Romney individually, instead sticking with broad partisan messages on the economy and policies.
Republican strategists say that personal attacks were avoided because they got poor reviews from independents and women, cohorts they had hoped to sway.
However, the broader focus stems also from the fact that the sights of leading conservative groups are set far beyond Romney and this year — on the pursuit of a lasting Republican majority in the Congress, a buildup of boots-on-the-ground power to challenge the Democrats’ advantage and popularization of conservative economic or social values.
“It’s never about one year or one election; it genuinely is about bringing the public to our view,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative non-profit funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers that has pursued an expansion of the Republican ground game and which spend about US$46 million on presidential TV ads.