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Effect of 'super PACs' proved to be less than expected

Super PACs and other independent groups spent more than $1 billion this election season. But their ads failed to have the influence that both parties had anticipated.

November 08, 2012|By Matea Gold and Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • Foster Friess, a retired mutual fund executive from Wyoming, said he gave about $5 million to conservative outside groups this election cycle, including Restore Our Future, which promoted Mitt Romney's candidacy.
Foster Friess, a retired mutual fund executive from Wyoming, said he gave… (Andrew Goodman, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — In the end, the old truism held: Money isn't everything.

Deep-pocketed "super PACs" and other independent groups dumped more than $1 billion into the 2012 election, largely on behalf of Republicans, injecting a harsh tone into races across the country and driving record spending. But they failed to have the dramatic impact both sides anticipated after such intense saturation of the airwaves.

Tuesday's results challenged the notion that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had a strong edge because of heavyweight allies such as Americans for Prosperity, Restore Our Future and the two Crossroads organizations that were cofounded by Karl Rove, the political strategist and former advisor to President George W. Bush.

In fact, groups allied with President Obama claimed more success, even though they were outspent. Unions gleefully noted that they exceeded the number of voter contacts made in 2008 — one result of the Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend money on direct political activity.

INTERACTIVE: Follow the money in the race

The election exposed a limitation of super PACs and tax-exempt advocacy groups: Prohibited from coordinating with candidates, they served primarily as a weapon to mow down opponents, rather than a means to communicate a positive vision. And the preponderance of groups working on Romney's behalf may have overloaded voters.

"There were so many super PACs, it felt like a lot of well-meaning people throwing a variety of ads at the wall to see what would stick," said Republican ad maker Fred Davis.

Charlie Spies, treasurer of Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, agreed that "the sheer volume of ads in all races certainly meant that it was hard to penetrate with a message."

MONEY MAP: 2012 Presidential campaign contributions

But he argued that his group broke through with its ads strafing Obama's economic record.

"It would be irresponsible to jump to any conclusion that certain super PAC ads weren't effective based upon the overall result," Spies said. "In the big picture, the impact of super PACs and outside groups in this cycle was to level the playing field."

Indeed, pro-Romney groups sponsored half of all broadcast television spots aired on his behalf between April 11 and Oct. 29, helping bring him to near parity with Obama and his allies, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzed data from the ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. But the outside groups were hampered by having to pay a steeper price than the president, who as a candidate can pay a lower rate.

The heavy investment in ads by many of the groups was viewed with skepticism by some conservative donors.

"I'm not a big fan of the high-altitude approach of mega TV ads," said Foster Friess, a retired mutual fund executive from Wyoming who said he gave about $5 million to outside groups this election cycle, including Restore Our Future. In the future, he said, there should be more emphasis on the kind of on-the-ground organizing that labor unions do.

Despite Tuesday's losses, Friess said he believes donors will open their checkbooks again: "My guess is that four years from now, the financial support will not drop off but may be even higher for the outside groups."

But even better, he said, would be a change in campaign finance rules to allow unlimited donations to candidates — a sign of some of the skepticism among wealthy contributors about how their money was used.

"You have no idea of the financial structuring of a lot of these outside groups in terms of how much went to the actual delivery of a message," Friess said, "versus how many dollars were taken off as fees to the people running them."

In all, outside groups reported spending $1.03 billion on media and other forms of voter outreach as of Wednesday — more than three times the amount they spent in 2008, according to the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics. That does not include money that tax-exempt groups put into early issue ads and voter contact, activities that could total hundreds of millions more, but do not have to be reported under federal law.

Much of the action was in House races, where both GOP-allied outside groups and liberal super PACs claimed victories.

But when it came to bigger landscapes — Senate campaigns and the White House contest — independent groups had mixed records.

Super PACs were influential in the Republican presidential primaries. Some extended the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, while Restore Our Future helped Romney eventually defeat them.

Heading into the general election, many political strategists predicted Obama would be swamped by outside spending. His own advisors persuaded him to give his blessing to a super PAC run by two former White House aides, despite his long-standing opposition to such groups.

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