Why Campaign Money Didn’t Matter So Much

Why Campaign Money Didn’t Matter So Much November 16, 2012

My former colleague Dave Weigel has an interesting article about the influence of money — or lack thereof — on the outcome of the recent election. An extraordinary amount of money was spent by outside groups, especially on the Republican side, with little to show for it:

In the grand sweep of American politics, never has so much money been spent for so little gain. Up to $40 million of outside money was poured into Ohio to beat Brown. American Crossroads spent nearly $105 million on its campaigns nationally. Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent nearly $143 million. Just those two groups, combined, spent more than the 2000 Rove-led presidential campaign of George W. Bush.

The difference: These guys lost. Both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads shoveled money into swing states and bluer “reach” states, trying to soften them up for Mitt Romney. “In the month of August,” said Restore Our Future’s Charlie Spies to reporter Andrew Kroll, “we were one of the key things keeping Mitt Romney afloat.” It spent $21 million that month, in an attempt—don’t say “coordinated”!—to keep Romney competitive while the candidate held back and raised money. It did keep the race close. But Romney lost all but one swing state, North Carolina. There’s no electoral vote for “participation.”

Down the ballot, the record was only slightly less atrocious. Look at the U.S. Senate races. American Crossroads spent $4 million in Florida, $2.7 million in Wisconsin, $1.8 million in Montana, more than $728,000 in Virginia, and nearly $500,000 in New Mexico. Only in Nebraska, where the group spent a late $1 million to destroy Bob Kerrey, did it get a return on its investment.

Because Republicans did so poorly, every independent group looks like a loser. The Chamber of Commerce bought ads for no-hope Senate races in Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and Florida. David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity bought airtime throughout 2012, trying to make voters angry about the Solyndra scandal. Further down the ballot, in House races that can be served by small media markets, the super PACs did a little better. But in the afterglow of 2010, when Republicans won most of their close races, the conservative PACs wildly overestimated what they could do with TV.

The key question is why? Why didn’t all that money swing the races? Weigel suggests that part of the explanation is that they spent all that money on ads that were really bad. And that might be part of it, but I suspect that TV ads just don’t have the effect the political consultants think they do anymore. There were so many ads running that some states literally had all of the commercial time available bought up and the PACs had to start spending money in states they had no chance of winning because there was nowhere else to run them.

I think this is especially true the closer it gets to the election. The ubiquity of campaign ads makes people numb, if not outright annoyed, and mutes the influence they will have. And the longer the campaign goes on, I suspect, the more immune the voters become to them. And the less they watch them. I found myself immediately changing the channel when a political ad came on and I bet a lot of you did too. So they may just be wasting their money on those ads, no matter how many focus groups say they respond to the theme or how clever the production values.

It may also be that the Obama campaign’s focus on GOTV efforts is simply more effective. The Republicans couldn’t come anywhere near matching the Obama campaign’s ability to target specific voters in specific places.

But don’t let this fool anyone into thinking that money doesn’t matter and has no influence. The threat of untraceable outside spending is still very powerful for members of Congress — especially in the House, where a few million dollars can really hurt. Corporate money can buy influence not just on election day, but in the years in between them as well.

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  • steve84

    There were reports out of Ohio that people were really, really, REALLY pissed about being bombarded with ads literally 24/7

  • It might also be that the ads were so partisan that they only appealed to the already convinced, and so had no effect on the actual election.

  • There is a much simpler possibility, though: the money *did* make a big difference – it made a race that shouldn’t even have been close into one that was almost close.

  • During Sandy, I had the news on for about eight straight hours, and I’m was in the media area for Northern Virginia. Not one commercial was anything other than a political ad. After a while, you learn just to drown out all of those ads. People don’t pay that much attention to ads anymore.

  • mandyjane

    I live in Florida, so I was bombarded pretty heavily with political ads. One thing I noticed about some of the anti Obama ads was how depressing they were, how they sort of portrayed America under President Obama like a third world country, then right after one of their ads an ad for Olive Garden’s all you can eat soup and salad, or some other happy commercial, would come on and wreck the idea that we are all in such terribly dire straights. It became kinda hilarious after awhile.

    This is my first post on any of the FTB blogs. I started reading a few of the blogs a couple months ago, and I really like it here.

  • dingojack

    Deen – Nate Silver’s nearly steady poll numbers suggests otherwise.

    mandyjane – hi there, stay and enjoy the liberal buffet (try the crab-cakes)!!

    😉 Dingo

  • lofgren

    I’m more concerned about the money’s ability to narrow the field of selection, influence the positions of the candidates, and shift the focus of the rhetoric of the campaign than on its ability to actually hand select a president and hand him the seat.

    Also, #4.

  • daved

    Here in Massachusetts, the presidential race was never in doubt, so there weren’t as many ads for it. We had a ton of ads for the Warren vs Brown race for the Senate, and some presidential ads that I assume were targeting New Hampshire, which was considered a swing state.

    Even here, where not every ad on TV was a political ad, you’d just start to tune them out, even for the candidate you favored. I wonder if you could get more bang for the buck by running a much wider variety of ads, rather than the same damn few over and over and over and over. It would be more expensive to make more ads, of course. And I bet the professionals would tell you that you were diluting your message with the greater variety, but I still think it could be a viable strategy.

    There’s a local furniture chain in the Boston area (Jordan’s Furniture) that runs a ton of ads, but they run a lot of different ads, and I think it makes people look on them more kindly. That’s my example of how it might work.

  • Mark Sherry

    I am amused by the idea of a campaign or PAC trying to distinguish themselves by airing deliberately ads that are deliberately non-political, except for a brief blurb at the end “This brief reprieve brought to you by the $CANDIDATE campaign”.

  • Michael Heath

    I think the money had an enormous affect in nearly all elections, just always not enough to outweigh other factors. Money allows truly atrocious candidates and policy arguments to have a far better chance than if the money spent was equal.

    There are a lot of glaring differences in money spent, some by those who won, Michele Bachmann, and some by those who lost, the Moroun family on the proposed new bridge between Ontario, Canada and Michigan in the U.S.

    In Rep. Bachmann’s case, she spent at least $19 million, most of which came from outside her district, to beat her challenger and what he spent, which was about 1/12 as much. [1]

    In the Moroun family’s case, the money they spent trying to amend the Michigan constitution to delay and minimize a new bridge failed. However the money he’s spent over the years blatantly bribing Republican state legislators has been an enormous success. They continue to obstruct construction of the new bridge. In spite of the fact the people want a new bridge, the economists see it as a no-brainer “yes” because it will promote win/win growth, a Republican governor supports building a bridge, and that same governor structured a beautiful deal for Michigan to get the bridge financed.

    Consider if the money spent by Republicans were equal to that of Democrats. Consider also that if Democrats and Republicans performed to the same standards when changing voting districts. The Democrats would be running the tables at the federal level and far more than they do now at the state level; they’d have a filibuster proof Senate and control the House. I also perceive economic policy changes at both levels since the late-1980s weighted far more towards conservative objectives than liberal ones. That would not be true if the two parties were equal on campaign money and gerrymandering. Instead we’d have far more liberal policies than we do now. So I think we need to be careful about dismissing the role money plays just because money alone wasn’t able to change some elections this cycle.

    1] As of 10/17: http://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary.php?id=MN06&cycle=2012

  • pascalleduc

    Thats nothing, in the month before the election I was being barraged by ads, mostly from the coal industry, in bloody Canada! On canadian history channel, on canadian discovery channel, and even on bloody canadian space channel. Do you know how many americans who are receptive to an anti EPA message whatch space? not enough to make a damn difference.

  • Rodney Nelson

    Zinc Avenger #2

    It might also be that the ads were so partisan that they only appealed to the already convinced, and so had no effect on the actual election.

    Here in Connecticut I heard many people say they’d not vote for Linda McMahon (Republican candidate for Senate to replace Joseph Lieberman) because her ads consisted of nothing but bashing her opponent. Just listening to her tv and radio ads, one had no idea where she stood on topics like abortion (pro-choice), continuing Obamacare (no), lowering the defense budget (no), AGW (skeptical) or supporting the Citizens United decision (yes). But one did know from her ads that her opponent, Chris Murphy, got a sweetheart loan from a local bank and was threatened with foreclosure for missing mortgage payments (he made up his arrears).

    Despite outspending Murphy $42 million to $13 million, McMahon lost the election.

  • frog

    There was also the tenor of the ads. I’m in the ‘burbs of Philadelphia, and my primary TV watching is ABC, Discovery, Cartoon Network, and Comedy Central.

    The ads I saw? All the Obama ads were positive: “Vote for me, we will keep going forward to make this country great.” The only negative Obama ad I saw was one that showed Mitt Romney being against Planned Parenthood and wanting to outlaw abortion. ALL of these ads had the “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message” tagline.

    If there was a positive Romney ad, it didn’t make enough of an impression. The ads with “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message” were mild, mostly on the theme of “The country is headed the wrong direction and I’m the guy to bring it back the right way.”

    But far outnumbering those were the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity ads, which were utter poison. They were massive fearmongering, full of blatant, outright lies (the most obvious being “unemployment is over 8% and rising”). The production was just awful, with the contrasty-doctored photos of Obama.

    They had two ads, apparently trying to appeal to middle-class married white women, where a MCMWW would talk about why she wasn’t going to vote for Obama again. These women came across as scared and depressed, but not at all sympathetic (I felt an urge to say, “Quit whining” rather than “Oh, honey, that’s so terrible”).

    Not a one of these ads was “approved” by Mitt Romney. They outnumbered Romney’s own ads by a huge margin, and made him look like a complete tool by association.

    I have to wonder how many people saw those and were simply repelled by the sheer odiousness.

  • Could there also be validity to the idea that a major news story for the past two years has been that an outsized amount of money being spent by outside groups may have made voters more wary of what they see in political ads? It’s not that much different from the right wing “news” trick of telling people that all other outlets will lie to them. With so many people being bombarded with the idea that the post-Citizen’s United country is one where the incredibly rich will try to manipulate them with hours of advertisements, couldn’t this have partially inoculated voters against its effectiveness?

    Or, as Deen pointed out, it could have turned what should have been blowouts into squeakers.

  • wscott

    It might also be that the ads were so partisan that they only appealed to the already convinced

    I think that’s a real possibility. Here in Colorado, the ads were nonstop for months, and they pretty much all boiled down to “____ is EEEEVILLLL!!1!” Nothing new, nothing intelligent, and nothing even attempting to appeal to independants. Even my most die-hard political-junkie friends were falling over each other to hit the mute button once commercials started. And anecdotally, I know several “undecideds” who were so turned off they either didn’t vote or did so reluctantly (and under-informed), largely because they were so disgusted with the ads.

  • jamessweet

    Some scattered thoughts, in no particular order:

    Recent research suggests that your hunch about TV ad ineffectiveness and viewer desensitization is correct, and that you get much more bang for your buck out of certain types of GOTV efforts. Even there, you have to be careful: An unscripted phone call is a lot more effective that e-mails, robocalls, etc. Anecdotal reports from the Obama campaign suggest smaller teams tend to work better. In any case, even if this research is premature, there are a lot indicators that it matters very much HOW you spend your money.

    This article seems to focus a lot on anecdotes; I would be much more interested in a broader correlation. It could be that these expensive loses were flukes. Or it might not. Of course you also have causality issues: Campaigns don’t spend money on campaigns they have no hope of winning or that they are certain to win; conceivably more money might be spent on a close race where one candidate was consistently losing (in an all-out effort to even the score) than in a dead heat… or not, I am just conjecturing. The point is, the expected result influences the amount of money spent, just as the amount of money spent influences the result, so teasing out causality is tricky.

    This election may be a bit of an outlier because of the Mourdock/Akin factor. Certainly those two races were extremely heavily effected by the Rape Factor — it’s hard to say how much residual effect it had on other races. It seems the Republicans badly underperformed in the Senate compared to what most metrics would have suggested. So that makes it even harder to take lessons about the value of campaign spending from just this one election. Well, except of course that no amount of money in the world will win you the election if you say really stupid shit about rape.

  • lofgren

    Deen – Nate Silver’s nearly steady poll numbers suggests otherwise.

    I’d say the steady poll numbers can easily be read to support Deen’s point. It’s easy for Romney to be the anti-Obama at the beginning of the race. The fact that he still had anything resembling a shot after the 47% remark and a few other major gaffes is entirely due to his ability to shout loud enough that that kind of thing receded into the noise.

  • frog “I have to wonder how many people saw those and were simply repelled by the sheer odiousness.”

    And if conservatives can’t win on sheer odiousness, what else have they got?

  • daved

    Not a one of these ads was “approved” by Mitt Romney. They outnumbered Romney’s own ads by a huge margin, and made him look like a complete tool by association.

    I have to wonder how many people saw those and were simply repelled by the sheer odiousness.

    We saw this in Massachusetts — but mostly with the ads for the congressional and gubernatorial races in New Hampshire. Really nasty, negative ads bashing the Democratic candidates — all of whom won anyway.

    I admit that I don’t know that the ads were such a big factor, but if I were a NH voter, I’d have been repelled. We didn’t get a lot of third-party ads in Mass for the Senate race, I think because both candidates had agreed to try to keep them out. Scott Brown went pretty negative anyway, but I think it hurt him rather than helping.

  • garnetstar

    I think, along with the other reasons adduced, that the Republican politicians and policies were just so batshit crazy that no amount of persuasion would convince the majority to vote for them.

    We haven’t seen that in many elections, but I hope to see it in many more.

  • jojo

    @frog – I’m in the Philly Suburbs as well, and I had the TV on during Sandy. By the time the storm was over I was ready to punch the woman in the commercial where she was out jogging and whining and lying. I must have seen it 30 times before the election, and it just made me angrier every time I saw it. And don’t even get me started on the Tom Smith commercials where he complains about the “political class” while asking to be elected into the political class.

  • robertfaber

    From the results I saw, seems the high profile spots–senators, governors, and presidents–are somewhat insulated from money attacks, because people almost always know those candidates from media coverage in addition to advertising. Where money is most effective is farther down ballot: judges, congressmen, and state legislatures. Most people can’t name their own representative to Washington, as most people live in districts without high profile candidates like Pelosi or Boehner or Bachmann or Grayson. I can’t remember the last time I saw a news story about Dave Camp or Justin Amash. And since gerrymandering takes away the need to even bother with a real campaign in many districts, it’s going to be the +1 to +10 D/R districts that will see the money.

    What’s more, even fewer people can name their state legislatures and almost no one can name the elected judiciary; those guys are just names on a ballot you see for five seconds every two or four years. And that’s where the money will continue to have its greatest effect; hard to get out from the weight of negative attack ads when nobody knows who you are or what you’ve really done.

  • Paul W., OM


    I’d say the steady poll numbers can easily be read to support Deen’s point. It’s easy for Romney to be the anti-Obama at the beginning of the race. The fact that he still had anything resembling a shot after the 47% remark and a few other major gaffes is entirely due to his ability to shout loud enough that that kind of thing receded into the noise.

    That sounds plausible to me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if more and more people had soured on Romney as they got to know more about Romney. Huge spending may have made a big difference.

    I wouldn’t think Silver’s model would separate that kind stuff out. IIRC, going by past election data, the model predicts that there will be a certain tendency to sour on the challenger over time, but AFAIK it doesn’t commit to why they tend to sour by about the amount they tend to, and not a lot more or a lot less. In some cases it may be that the challenger sucks more than usual, but that’s often compensated for by their campaigns going negative and making the incumbent out to suck even more, with some reasonable degree of effectiveness.

    If that’s what accounts for the predictability of the degree of souring on the challenger, it’s consistent with spending being very important—elections tend to be close, and tend to follow the the same trends, precisely because money matters more than how much the challenger actually sucks.

    Money masking the actual merits and demerits of the candidates may tend to make elections more similar than they otherwise would be, and more predictable with models like Silver’s.

    Or so I’d wildly guess, being nothing remotely like an expert on such things.

  • garnet

    I wonder how many people are like me and my husband. We typically don’t watch network TV. We record a lot of what we do watch on cable channels and skip over commercials. We rarely watch anything live anymore.

  • “Didn’t matter” my ass. Money spent on ads helps to keep outrageous lies and nonsensical ideas in the forefront of people’s thoughts, so others have to spend comparable amounts of money debunking them. If Democrats didn’t have comparable money to spend, Republican ad money would have had a visible effect on this election.

    Just because there was a relative stalemate this time around doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter.

    The ubiquity of campaign ads makes people numb, if not outright annoyed, and mutes the influence they will have.

    That may be a feature, not a bug: saturate the airwaves with nonsense, and people will be less likely to notice a new idea or issue that might otherwise cause problems for one candidate.

  • Chiroptera

    Seriously? “Money didn’t matter much” because the party that spent more millions didn’t beat the party that spent fewer millions?

    No one is saying that US politics is an auction that goes to the highest bidder; what we are saying is that US politics is an Old Boys’ country club where you have pay exorbitant dues just to get into the door.

  • caseloweraz

    Steve84 wrote: “There were reports out of Ohio that people were really, really, REALLY pissed about being bombarded with ads literally 24/7”

    I worked the phones for Obama at a local operation, calling into various states. It’s true: many people I talked to in Ohio and Pennsylvania said they were fed up with the bombardment of calls. More simply hung up; I suspect they had caller ID and recognized the number.

  • yoav

    @garnet #25

    My thought exactly, a lot of people have DVRs these days and I’m sure we’re not the only two people who fast forward through commercials.

  • gerryl

    Those Republican underwriters must have had a lot of money to get rid of as the campaign wound down. I live in reliably blue Oregon — in the bright blue area around Portland, but in the final weeks of the campaign I started to see those “I voted for Obama the last time but I’m voting for Romney this time” ads. Made it look like someone really thought Mitt had a chance in Oregon. Probably there was just no more ad time to buy in swing states and they wanted to spread the money around to their buddies.

    Then, a few days after the election, Clear Channel killed the progressive talk radio programming on 620 KPOJ and replaced it with Fox Sports channel. Don’t know how much difference it will make, but there’s a petition to try to get the programming back. The morning guy had listeners calling in from all over the country, so feel free to sign it at http://www.savekpoj.com/

    If we can’t get KPOJ back, we are hoping Carl Wolfson will get a slot at another local station.