Never has so much money been spent in an American political campaign with so little effect. Billionaires, both anonymous and named, threw hundreds of millions of dollars into the presidential race and several Senate contests, but failed to elect a Republican president or bring about a GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate.
Though they did somewhat better buying victories in races for the House of Representatives, the super rich fell far short of changing the balance of power in the nation’s capital. According to a study done by the Center for Public Integrity, companies and the billionaires who own them gave 85% of their donations to Republicans. Yet all this spending -- unleashed by the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010 -- did not warp the political process as severely as many had feared it might.
The effect was blunted, in part, by the money-raising machine of the Obama campaign and strong fundraising efforts of Democratic Party groups that allowed them to stay in the game with GOP campaigns backed by money from rich guys and corporations. It seems, as well, that the colossal spending spree reached a saturation point at which voters simply could not absorb any more negative advertising. People tuned out, turned off or completely avoided the flood of expensive political messages -- which means a whole lot of money was wasted.
One of the biggest flops was Karl Rove’s American Crossroads "super PAC." According to the Sunlight Foundation, a group that monitors political spending, Rove’s organization spent $104.7 million targeting Democrats. Besides Mitt Romney, Rove was trying to elect eight Republican Senate candidates. Only two of his favored ones came out on top on election day -- Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Dean Heller in Nevada. That is not a very impressive showing for the guy everyone called a political genius back when he was managing George W. Bush’s political career.
Next time around will the billionaires shy away from investing in campaigns? Or will someone figure out how to use the money more effectively? A big factor -- arguably the decisive one -- in President Obama’s triumph was the vast get-out-the-vote operation his campaign began to build almost as soon as the inaugural ball ended in 2009. That took plenty of money and, clearly, it was money well spent.
Perhaps the lesson is that money used smartly can, indeed, win an election, but wholesale dumping of millions of dollars into any campaign only guarantees that TV station owners and political consultants will make out like bandits.