After the most money-drenched elections in history -- with close to $6 billion spent on the 2012 presidential and Congressional races alone, by one estimate -- big donors and the media alike are now asking: Was it worth it?
It's a fair question, especially for the new breed of super PACs and other outside groups that unleashed $1 billion this cycle on federal races. More than $715 million of that came from conservative groups attacking President Obama, who handily won a second term, and Congressional Democrats, who only strengthened their grip in the Senate.
Democrats are now relishing stories of Republican strategist Karl Rove having to explain to donors how two groups he co-founded, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, spent more than $175 million but only won 12 out of the 45 federal races they targeted -- a dismal 27 percent success rate.
They're not alone: FreedomWorks for America, the Tea Party super PAC founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) spent $19 million and lost all of its top-tier Congressional races, including a $2.9 million effort to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
But do these setbacks for the Republican super PACs mean that Big Money didn't have an impact in the 2012 elections? Did all that money just go to waste? Hardly.
WHAT'S THE BANG FOR THE BUCK?
First, let's step back and look at what money can (and can't) do in an election. For example, about $3 billion of election dollars go to air TV ads, which by all accounts are blunt political tools, expensive and inefficient in influencing elections.
As Daniel Adler of Rolling Stone noted in his valuable assessment of political ads earlier this year, TV ads don't seem to have an impact on most people, and whatever effects they do have are usually short-lived. So why do strategists still blow so much money on them? Because, as Adler concludes, "ads actually do work -- or work well enough, enough of the time."
The key is the audience: Ads seem to work best on voters who don't know much about the issues or candidates. This includes undecided voters, that small sliver of the electorate that comedian Steven Colbert joked "don’t think about what they want until they get right up to the register at McDonald’s."
According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, data on TV ads in battleground states going back to 2000 suggests ads have changed the minds of some voters -- at least enough to influence, if not determine, the result.
Or as Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says: "[Political advertising] does have an impact, even if it’s a marginal one. And that marginal impact is worth it."
But ads are just one arrow in a political strategist's quiver -- and while they can move the needle of voter opinion, they can't erase other shortcomings. Equally important are the ground game of getting out the vote, the overall message a campaign projects, and, of course, who's running for office: American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio testily blamed their recent Senate losses on "sub-optimal candidate quality."
MONEY'S STATE-LEVEL INFLUENCE
The fact that TV ads are most effective with less-engaged voters might explain money's continuing influence in state and local races, which receive far less media exposure and voters may know even less about the candidates and issues.
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As Facing South and The New Yorker showed, in 2010 an onslaught of outside spending in North Carolina by outside money groups led by Republican donor Art Pope was a key factor in fueling a historic GOP takeover of the state legislature.
That put N.C. Republicans in charge of the once-a-decade redistricting process, producing new maps which the John Locke Foundation -- which is largely funded by Pope's foundation -- readily admits were crucial to enabling the GOP to expand its power in the General Assembly in 2012.
Money's state-level influence in North Carolina continued this year, too. According to FollowNCMoney.org, a money-tracking website run by the Institute for Southern Studies, more than $14 million from super PACs and other outside groups poured into N.C. state races.
Of the top 10 spending groups in North Carolina -- which made up more than 90 percent of the $14 million total -- seven were Republican-leaning groups, who outspent their Democratic-leaning counterparts by more than a two-to-one margin.
And unlike the national super PACs, conservative spending groups in North Carolina enjoyed a much higher winning percentage: Of the 10 races that attracted the most outside money, nine ended in Republican victories. (As for Pope, he and his operatives are well-represented in the newly-elected GOP governor's transition team.)
Money may have had the most influence in the election for a N.C. Supreme Court seat -- a race where many voters didn't know much about the candidates beyond what they saw in ads. The race attracted an unprecedented $2.3 million in outside spending, 88 percent of which came from super PACs supporting conservative incumbent Paul Newby, including a last-minute attack ad described by one newspaper as sleazy. Despite trailing in the polls, Newby ended up winning with 51.9 percent of the vote.
As Facing South reported this week, money appears to have also been a factor in the GOP's capture of the Arkansas legislature for the first time in over a century; the billionaire Koch brothers had pledged to spend $1 million helping Republicans in the state. The Center for Public Integrity sees money also playing a big role in state races in Montana and Washington.
BIG MONEY: NOT GOING ANYWHERE
In other words, while a handful of rueful mega-donors may wish they'd kept their cash, the notion that Big Money spending was "nearly for naught" in 2012 doesn't hold up.
Indeed, the reality may be that super PACs are what helped keep the presidential race as close as it was. Vanderbilt University's Ad Rating Project -- one of the first systematic efforts to track the impact of TV ads -- found that Romney's August 2012 "Right Choice," attacking Obama (falsely) on welfare to work requirements, hit a nerve with independent voters.
And that doesn't include the larger impact of money on the political system. As Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post notes, "the mere possibility that Super PACs may spend big in elections will change the landscape of American politics -- who runs, how they run, and what they run on -- in ways that are, at the moment, subtle and hard to predict."
Big Money may have suffered a few setbacks -- but it's not going anywhere. And chances are that in the next election cyce, the money arms race will be bigger than ever.