Thoughts on campaign spending from the Wall Street Journal. There was not enough of it for their tastes.
Apparently Mitt was “defenseless” against Obama’s ads.
In every election there are issues that take up an inordinate amount of media attention but turn out to be sideshows. This year’s champion is Super PAC spending. Liberals first claimed that the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors were “buying” the election, but now that Democrats have won they are claiming that these GOP donors were gullible fools for giving at all. They’re wrong on both counts.
Money did matter, as it always does to some extent. But the cash that really counted was the more than $100 million that the Obama campaign used from May through July in the battleground states to portray Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko without the social conscience. The Election Day exit polls show that Mr. Romney’s image never recovered from that ad barrage. He ran largely a biographical campaign and the Obama campaign destroyed his business biography. His net favorability was negative.
Mr. Romney’s advisers told us in early August that they would have liked to respond to the attacks but lacked the cash to do that and at the same time to portray a positive message after they had run through all of their money during the primary. They went with the positive message, albeit one that didn’t make much of an impact.
By the way, this is also the early-advertising strategy that Bill Clinton and adviser Dick Morris used to destroy Bob Dole in 1996. You’d think Republican strategists would have remembered that.
The GOP Super PACs tried to fill the gap by attacking Mr. Obama, but they were hard pressed to speak for a candidate whom by law they are prohibited from coordinating with. Perhaps their ads could have been more effective, and perhaps some of that money would have been better spent on matching Democratic voter turnout operations. Those questions deserve to be part of a GOP self-examination. But it’s hard to believe that Mr. Romney would have done any better if the Super PACs hadn’t existed.
All of which suggests that the real problem this year wasn’t too much campaign spending but too little. The GOP lacked the cash to counter the attack ads when its candidate really needed it. Mr. Romney raised enough money after the conventions, but by then it was too late to expand the field of competition other than with a late sneak attack of the kind the campaign tried in Pennsylvania.
In focusing so much on rich GOP donors, the media also underplayed the way the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision helped Democrats. That ruling overturned longstanding rules that prohibited unions from using dues money to communicate politically with non-union members. This allowed unions to run more efficient voter-targeting operations, since they didn’t have to skip non-union households, and it contributed to voter turnout in places like Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio.
The unions were also helped by the many White House and campaign officials whom Mr. Obama dispatched to fund-raise for Democratic Super PACs—when he wasn’t busy criticizing GOP spending.
The history of campaign-finance limits is that attention to the issue recedes when Democrats win. But expect it to return in time for the 2014 campaign cycle, when the media will find some new Sheldon Adelson to portray as a threat to democracy even as unions go on spending their cash below the radar.
A far better reform would remove all donation limits to candidates, so nominees like Mr. Romney of either party aren’t left defenseless again. The Super PACs would fade in importance and the candidates would get to better control their own message. The U.S. is a huge country and it takes lots of money to educate voters.