The Ad Wars: Was outside money futile?

After Election Day, the press seizes on a new conventional wisdom

Throughout the 2012 campaign, dozens of reporters and advocates kept a close eye on the flood of outside money that poured into the contest, most often from wealthy conservative donors. They tracked where it was coming from, how it was being spent, and who it was benefiting.

And Wednesday morning, after a string of losses for Republicans backed heavily by super PACs and nonprofits, they started to ask a surprising question: Did all that money make a difference?

A handy Center for Public Integrity chart listing candidate and outside spending in key races shows why that question was on many minds. In the battles for the White House and Senate, Democrats repeatedly triumphed, even where they faced significant disadvantages in third-party spending. (In some of those cases, including the presidential campaign, Democrats did enjoy an edge in candidate spending, so total dollars were roughly even.) In the House the results are more mixed, but even there an outside money edge is not clearly correlated with victory.

And a return on investment scorecard from the Sunlight Foundation finds that several of the biggest super PACs and nonprofit groups achieved their desired outcomes only a tiny fraction of the time. According to Sunlight, 1.29 percent of the more than $100 million spent by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group helped lead to the desired outcome. The Chamber of Commerce’s return on investment was 5.34 percent. For one of the National Rifle Association’s funds, the rate was a paltry 0.79 percent.

In the face of these results, The Washington Post came out of the gate with a strong conclusion:

Record spending by independent groups largely defined how the 2012 elections were fought, but the money had no disĀ¬cernĀ¬ible impact on the outcome of most contests, according to an early analysis of ballot results and expenditures by The Washington Post.

Examining outcomes from the presidential, Senate and House races, reporters Dan Eggen and T. W. Farnam concluded that “GOP outside money groups struck out repeatedly” and that “outside money was the dog that barked but did not bite.” Eggen and Farnam write that while outside money changed the character of many races and forced even more fundraising by candidates, it failed to sway the results.

Other leading newspapers quickly made similar observations. The Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins surveyed the landscape of GOP losses and found that “the results of the most recent election contests suggest money matters most when it is the hands of candidates themselves, rather than the outside political entities supporting their campaign.” (CJR’s Walter Shapiro has pointed to one reason that might be the case.) The New York Times’s Nicholas Confessore noted that “the prizes most sought by the emerging class of megadonors remained outside their grasp.” And Politico’s Kenneth Vogel wrote a story headlined “The Billion Dollar Bust?” that described the reactions of super-donors to the election’s disappointing results.

Elsewhere at its site, the Center for Public Integrity examined the fate of candidates backed most heavily by leading super-donors in greater detail. The rundown shows that the biggest expenditures by super-donors were consistently losing bets, particularly for top Republican contributor Sheldon Adelson. (An analysis of Adelson’s contributions by Mother Jones that was not limited to candidate-specific super PACs shows more mixed results.)

“Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it buy an election, apparently,” write CPI’s Rachael Marcus and John Dunbar.

In his own contribution to the fast-growing “super PACs are overrated” literature, Slate’s David Weigel offered an explanation for the struggles of the conservative outside groups, based on a closer look at their efforts in Ohio. “Their ads were stupid,” Weigel declared.

In September, I criticized a Wall Street Journal story for concluding that super PAC spending was ineffective based on the polls in states where conservative outside groups had gone on the air. Now the latest polls are the final results, and most of the outside money ended up picking losers.

However, it still seems premature to write off outside money as ineffective. The fact that many of the candidates backed by third party cash lost their races does not mean that the money had no effect. Or, as Grist’s Dave Roberts put it on Twitter: “Leery of this gathering CW that right-wing SuperPAC money was ‘wasted.’ We don’t know what election would have looked like w/out it.” If earlier worries that outside money would run roughshod over democracy were sometimes overstated, the media should also guard against a too-quick consensus that the outside cash was futile.

The House races in particular seem to warrant closer examination. That’s the level where outside cash gave the GOP the clearest advantage in total dollars and in ads aired—and also the level where Republican candidates did best. Other explanations, like GOP-friendly gerrymandering, may explain much of that success—especially if this tally showing Democrats actually won more House votes nationwide holds up—but that doesn’t mean outside money didn’t play a role.

The new consensus also risks obscuring important questions about the role that outside money plays within parties. The course, if not the outcome, of this year’s Republican primary was clearly affected by outside groups. One new Republican congressman, Michigan’s Kerry Bentivolio—whose own brother predicted, “if he gets elected, he’ll eventually serve time in prison”—relied on outside cash to overcome opposition within his party. There are other examples to be found.

That said, the results are in, and outside money did not pick the winners of the nation’s highest-level races. The reasons for this apparently limited impact—and the extent to which outside money did have an influence—both merit close scrutiny as our body politic continues to adjust to the new campaign finance landscape.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.