At the beginning of the election cycle, Democrats publicly agonized that outside campaign spending, liberalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, would create a brave new world where stealthy Republican outside groups would overwhelm underfunded Democratic candidates, giving the GOP an unfair advantage in the race for the White House and control of Congress.
None of the Democrats’ nightmares came to fruition. The Republicans’ much-feared financial edge never materialized in the presidential campaign, as President Obama and his allies have been outspending Mitt Romney and outside groups by a healthy margin down the home stretch. Outside GOP groups spent big money on bad Senate candidates and offered muddled messages on behalf of their choices, muting their significant spending edge. And Democratic-aligned super PACs have enjoyed a decisive spending advantage over their GOP counterparts in House races, and are putting races in play that few expected to be competitive months ago.
The reality is the Citizens United ruling has sparked renewed competition across the political spectrum. Far from creating an uneven playing field, the influx of super PAC money has allowed Romney to avoid getting buried by the president’s team financially, given the Democrats opportunities to make deeper inroads against Republicans in the House, and expanded the number of competitive Senate races to historic levels. As Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil told The Washington Post, it’s the largest Senate playing field he can ever remember.
How did all the early doom-and-gloom predictions turn out to be so off-base? Campaign finance reform advocates made the mistake of assuming that more money in the system protects the politicians in power, when in reality, it fosters competition because the money disproportionately goes to the party challenging the status quo. That’s why Democrats have benefited from super PAC spending in the battle for the House, while Republicans have been able to even up the score in the presidential contest and Senate races.
Without the assistance of outside groups, Obama would hold a massive financial edge over Romney. Obama, along with the DNC, is on track to raise nearly $1 billion after a rocky summer. His campaign has outspent Romney’s in the battleground states $306 million to $133 million, according to our Hotline ad tracker. When outside groups are factored in, the margin is much closer, with Romney and allies holding a $396.7 million to $363.2 million edge. If the goal of campaign finance reform is to encourage spending parity between the two sides, super PACs have pulled off the trick.
But more significantly, Obama and his allies have managed to overwhelm the opposition on television down the home stretch, as they’re better positioned to utilize money in their own coffers than being dependent on groups from the outside. Even with assistance from super PACs, a Wesleyan Media Project study showed that Obama and his allies held a substantial advertising advantage in 14 of the top 15 media markets in the pivotal battleground states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia between September 9-30. There’s no sign that super PAC money has given Romney any edge on the airwaves, as some Democrats recently feared.
The story in the Senate demonstrates that an influx of money can make races competitive, but it’s hardly a substitute for quality candidates and coherent campaign strategy. Republican outside groups, led by Crossroads GPS and the Chamber of Commerce, have poured more than $117 million into Senate races this cycle, compared with the Democrats’ $74 million. But they’re not getting much bang for their buck. In the three races where Republican groups spent the most money — Florida ($21.6 million), Ohio ($21.1 million), and Missouri ($10.2 million) — the GOP candidates are struggling, with operatives all but writing off Todd Akin and Connie Mack’s chances. All the early money spent against Sen. Claire McCaskill couldn’t help Republicans land a credible candidate against her.
Republicans also point out that not all money is created equal. Crossroads GPS has produced high-quality ads hitting Democratic Senate candidates, but many of the other outside groups’ spots have been cookie-cutter constructs. One GOP operative lamented that anyone with some basic TV production software could produce a lot of the outside groups’ ads this cycle. And mixed messages coming from groups with wholly different agendas are bound to be less persuasive than party-controlled ads.
Meanwhile, despite being outgunned, outside Democratic money is helping expand the playing field, putting Republican-held seats in Arizona and Indiana in play, while Republicans are playing catch-up. It’s also offering worthwhile protection for candidates facing wealthy, self-funded candidates – as in Connecticut, where the Democratic nominee, Rep. Chris Murphy, has been outspent by his free-spending Republican opponent Linda McMahon, but where outside groups have helped to even the score.
House Democratic strategists, meanwhile, have been surprised that allied outside super PACs are outspending Republican outside groups by a decent margin, even as they publicly warned that their candidates would be buried by GOP super PAC money throughout much of the year. Between July and October, pro-Democratic super PACs have spent $18.2 million in House races, while Republican groups have only expended $11.5 million. House Majority PAC, the biggest Democratic House super PAC, has played the role of a shadow DCCC, plopping in money to fill the spending voids and releasing polling to telegraph the most vulnerable Republican members. The expected Republican spending barrage hasn’t yet followed suit in House races, though the GOP-aligned American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund are pledging to spend about $13.5 million.
At this point, with ad spending already saturating major markets, it’s hard — and very expensive — to play catch-up. Republicans argue that they have more flexibility to choose which races to target as developments change late. But Democrats, at the least, are getting much more value for their spending, securing lower advertising rates by reserving ad time in advance.
Indeed, despite carping about the new campaign finance rules, Democrats have adapted to them in near-record speed. The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA amped up its fundraising over the last several months, and its ads portraying Romney as a corporate raider were among the most brutal in denting his personal favorability. House Majority PAC has emerged as the big super PAC player in House races, already having a decisive role in helping hold onto Gabrielle Giffords’ old House seat in Arizona. And despite starting out at a big financial disadvantage, Senate Democrats enter the homestretch in enviable position to hold onto the majority, and are now much closer to financial parity.
This year’s election is reminding me of this year’s baseball season, where some of the teams with the lowest payrolls in the game — the Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles, and Washington Nationals — made the playoffs, while many of the deep-spending franchises, like the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Texas Rangers, fell short of expectations. It all goes to show that money only goes so far. Knowing how to spend it wisely is much more important.