In our first post-Citizens United presidential election, President Barack Obama managed to overcome the threat of uncapped super PAC funds to win his re-election bid. So what happened to all of that cash that super PACs spent on the election?
First, let’s look at the numbers. Super PACs raked in over one billion dollars for the presidential election alone. According to ProPublica estimates, Mitt Romney super PACs spent $6.35 for every vote they received; $5.60 of that was spent attacking his opponent. As for the Obama super PACs, they spent $1.83 for each vote, with $1.43 of that going toward anti-Romney ads.
The vast majority of super PAC money went toward TV commercials, almost all of which were negative. This cycle, overwhelmed viewers appear to have tuned out these ads rather than using them to help make their decision. Charlie Spies, the treasurer of a Romney super PAC agreed, explaining, “The sheer volume of ads in all races certainly meant that it was hard to penetrate with a message.” Forget the politicians, with nearly a billion dollars in ads, the real winners of Citizens United have been the television networks.
Since the super PACS’ efforts failed to turn the presidential race, now even wealthy conservatives are concerned about the accountability of super PACs. Foster Friess, who donated $5 million to pro-Romney Super PACs, said to the LA Times, “You have no idea of the financial structuring of a lot of these outside groups in term of how much went to the actual delivery of a message versus how many dollars were taken off as fees to the people running them.” Of course, that is the danger in donating money to non-transparent, unregulated entities.
But the bottom line is, when Friess spends millions to buy an election, he wants to make sure his side actually wins the election. Despite this election’s failure, Friess still anticipates that he and his cronies will pour in just as much money into the next presidential election, but they will expect them to be smarter about it.
In that sense, consider 2012 merely a practice run. Citizens United is still a game-changer, the wealthy just have yet to learn how to foolproof this advantage. In four years, look for the money to spent not just on television ads, but in manners that resemble grassroots tactics in order to get out the vote.
Besides, super PACs actually had a profound impact on races on the state and local level. As the Institute for Southern Studies points out, it is much easier to sway voters’ opinions on local candidates who they know less about than the presidential candidates. In many cases, the negative ads are all the voters are familiar with, and the effects show in the voting results. Out of the ten North Carolina races that generated the most outside super PAC money, Republicans won nine of the ten seats by spending at a rate of 2:1.
So let’s not let 2012’s presidential outcome fool us. President Obama may have surmounted steep financial obstacles this time around, but we likely have not felt the full effects of unlimited corporate spending on elections yet.