My former colleague Dave Weigel has an interesting article about the influence of money — or lack thereof — on the outcome of the recent election. An extraordinary amount of money was spent by outside groups, especially on the Republican side, with little to show for it:
In the grand sweep of American politics, never has so much money been spent for so little gain. Up to $40 million of outside money was poured into Ohio to beat Brown. American Crossroads spent nearly $105 million on its campaigns nationally. Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent nearly $143 million. Just those two groups, combined, spent more than the 2000 Rove-led presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
The difference: These guys lost. Both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads shoveled money into swing states and bluer “reach” states, trying to soften them up for Mitt Romney. “In the month of August,” said Restore Our Future’s Charlie Spies to reporter Andrew Kroll, “we were one of the key things keeping Mitt Romney afloat.” It spent $21 million that month, in an attempt—don’t say “coordinated”!—to keep Romney competitive while the candidate held back and raised money. It did keep the race close. But Romney lost all but one swing state, North Carolina. There’s no electoral vote for “participation.”
Down the ballot, the record was only slightly less atrocious. Look at the U.S. Senate races. American Crossroads spent $4 million in Florida, $2.7 million in Wisconsin, $1.8 million in Montana, more than $728,000 in Virginia, and nearly $500,000 in New Mexico. Only in Nebraska, where the group spent a late $1 million to destroy Bob Kerrey, did it get a return on its investment.
Because Republicans did so poorly, every independent group looks like a loser. The Chamber of Commerce bought ads for no-hope Senate races in Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and Florida. David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity bought airtime throughout 2012, trying to make voters angry about the Solyndra scandal. Further down the ballot, in House races that can be served by small media markets, the super PACs did a little better. But in the afterglow of 2010, when Republicans won most of their close races, the conservative PACs wildly overestimated what they could do with TV.
The key question is why? Why didn’t all that money swing the races? Weigel suggests that part of the explanation is that they spent all that money on ads that were really bad. And that might be part of it, but I suspect that TV ads just don’t have the effect the political consultants think they do anymore. There were so many ads running that some states literally had all of the commercial time available bought up and the PACs had to start spending money in states they had no chance of winning because there was nowhere else to run them.
I think this is especially true the closer it gets to the election. The ubiquity of campaign ads makes people numb, if not outright annoyed, and mutes the influence they will have. And the longer the campaign goes on, I suspect, the more immune the voters become to them. And the less they watch them. I found myself immediately changing the channel when a political ad came on and I bet a lot of you did too. So they may just be wasting their money on those ads, no matter how many focus groups say they respond to the theme or how clever the production values.
It may also be that the Obama campaign’s focus on GOTV efforts is simply more effective. The Republicans couldn’t come anywhere near matching the Obama campaign’s ability to target specific voters in specific places.
But don’t let this fool anyone into thinking that money doesn’t matter and has no influence. The threat of untraceable outside spending is still very powerful for members of Congress — especially in the House, where a few million dollars can really hurt. Corporate money can buy influence not just on election day, but in the years in between them as well.