Super PAC Spending Proves to Be a Bad Investment at Presidential Level

National Journal

The outside groups that were supposed to reshape the presidential campaign with hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ads failed to leave more than a dent in President Obama's vote total. So what, exactly, happened?

Bad planning, generic ads, and poor strategy, according to some Republicans, who bemoaned the inability of groups like American Crossroads to cut into Obama's support despite the resources at their disposal. But their failure also reflects how difficult it is for any organization, even one with millions in the bank, to make an impact on the most scrutinized and expensive race in the country.

It's a major disappointment that has left the wealthy donors who fund these groups puzzled and frustrated. "Some people are saying, "˜We spent all of our money -- and we got this?' " said Chip Felkel, a GOP strategist.

The 2012 White House race ultimately flipped the conventional wisdom that dominated heading into the campaign. The Republican-allied groups, like Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads, were expected to wield the same considerable influence they did during the 2010 midterm elections, when their money was credited with juicing GOP gains. Democrats, meanwhile, were seen as scrambling to assemble a similar apparatus, one that -- at least at the presidential level -- struggled to get off the ground.

Obama, who had urged contributions to his campaign rather than to super PACs, reversed himself in February and gave his blessing for donations to his allied super PAC, Priorities USA Action. The move was seen as hypocritical for a president who supported campaign finance reform, but more importantly, it was a sign of just how much Obama's campaign worried that it would be swamped in spending by conservative groups. That concern would soon mark many of the campaign's fundraising pitches to small-donor supporters, as an array of Democrats pleaded for money to reelect Obama in the face of the outside groups.

But the Democratic groups like Priorities USA, despite spending far less money, ultimately proved to have a bigger impact. Priorities USA helped define Mitt Romney early on as a heartless capitalist, using its meager resources to air ads in May and June in the key state of Ohio. It was part of the group's single-minded drive, explained cofounder Bill Burton, to define the GOP nominee as out of touch with the middle class. The multiple Republican counterparts failed to develop any corresponding message in their advertising.

"There is no doubt that although we had far fewer resources, we had a much bigger impact in this race than Republican outside groups," said Burton. "My guess is, there's a lot of super-rich, very angry Republicans wondering why they spent all this money."

It's also true that influencing voters in a presidential race is tough. The amount of coverage the top race receives -- not just from journalists, but on TV shows and venues like NBC's Saturday Night Live -- makes it difficult for paid advertising to have much impact in the first place. And ad spending in the White House race is north of $1 billion to begin with -- meaning voters are already inundated with messages from both sides.

It was "far-fetched" to think outside groups would have a game-changing effect on the race, said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge, a Democratic-allied group that conducts opposition research on Republican candidates. "The best you could do is move the needle a point or two."

Mollineau said that Democratic groups, knowing they would have less money, were far more strategic in how they deployed their resources. It's clear some Republicans doubt many GOP groups received the same bang for their buck.

Jim Innocenzi, a longtime Republican ad-maker, compared the ads produced by the independent groups to direct mail -- they were so generic that, after a while, they were easily dismissed by voters. Many of the group's ads, like this one, used stock footage and a tired message (more taxes, more spending if you vote Obama) that failed to distinguish them.

Not only were the ads generic and forgettable, they didn't zero in on a narrative to advance Romney's candidacy. "You have to create a theme in advertising and a consistent message, and I don't know you can say there was any theme or consistent message in any of these ads," Innocenzi said.