A screenshot from "New Normal," an ad from Restore Our Future. (Restore Our Future )
WASHINGTON -- Restore Our Future was a battering ram in the Republican primaries, mowing down Mitt Romney’s opponents as he sought to secure the GOP presidential nomination.
In the general election contest, however, the impact of the "super PAC" has been more diffused. It targeted key states with television commercials in an effort to maximize its resources -- and then went dark for much of September, expecting Romney’s campaign to be at full force on the airwaves during that period.
Restore Our Future’s recent spending illustrates how super PACs — for all their financial advantages — can be hamstrung because they cannot coordinate with the candidate, a particular disadvantage on the massive field of a White House race.
The pro-Romney group has raised the most of all the presidential super PACs, bringing in $96.7 million through the end of August -- more than half of which it spent in the primaries. Its counterpart on the Democratic side, the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, raised just $35.6 million. But without a primary to fight, Priorities has been able to nearly match Restore on the air since the spring.
INTERACTIVE: Campaign contributions by state
The former Romney aides who founded Restore Our Future crafted a strategy for the summer and fall based on what they expected the Romney campaign to do. But divining that was difficult: Unlike President Obama’s reelection effort, the Romney campaign does not reserve television air time weeks in advance, as Politico noted earlier this week.
Restore Our Future officials figured the GOP challenger would need air cover in August, when he would be running low on primary money, unable to tap into funds raised for the general election until after he was nominated at the Republican National Convention.
“Our strategy that we articulated early on to our donors was that we were going to maximize our spending in the month of August, which is when we felt historically challenger candidates need support the most and when we could be the most effective,” said Charlie Spies, the group’s treasurer. “We knew in September the Romney campaign would have their general election funds available.”
So Restore Our Future drained its coffers in August, dumping $30 million in 11 states on an ad blitz attacking Obama’s fiscal record. The group assumed that the Romney campaign would come back on the air at full strength in September.
But the campaign did not dramatically increase its advertising in September, a decision that caught Romney’s allies off guard.
Together, the Romney campaign and Republican National Committee ran 42,406 spots on broadcast and national cable between Aug. 26 and Sept. 30, while President Obama and the Democratic National Committee put 120,916 spots on the air during that time period, according to a Wesleyan Media Project analysis of data provided by the ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
INTERACTIVE: Spending during the 2012 election
Why Romney was so outmatched remains unclear. The campaign and the RNC appeared to have sufficient resources, ending August with $168 million on hand.
But campaign officials decided that paid ads would have a limited impact during the two party conventions, so they held back during those two weeks, according to a source familiar with internal thinking. For the rest of September, they sought to make selective, high-impact buys, believing that it made more sense to boost their spending on ads after the first debate, when they hoped Romney would lodge a strong performance.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul declined to comment, saying the campaign does not discuss its ad buys.
The disparity on the air came at a critical time: Obama was enjoying a lift from the Democratic National Convention, while Romney was struggling to explain a leaked video of comments he made at a fundraiser suggesting that 47% of the country backed Obama because they were dependent on government aid.
Even after Romney’s absence from the airwaves became obvious, Restore Our Future, left with just $6 million on hand at the end of August, was not in a position to help.
Other GOP-allied outside groups also appeared to have been working under the assumption that the Romney campaign would dominate the airwaves in September.
After they pumped $26 million into ads the week of Aug. 21, spending by pro-Romney groups dropped sharply to just $3.5 million during the week of the Republican National Convention, according to data provided by a Democratic source with access to media buys. During the week of Sept. 4, when Obama accepted his party nomination in Charlotte, Romney’s allies spent $11 million on the air, then just $6.6 million the week that followed.
Spies said Restore Our Future enjoyed strong fundraising last month and he expects the group will spend more on the general election than the $55 million that it poured into the primaries.
INTERACTIVE: Battleground states map