WASHINGTON — Record spending by independent groups largely defined how the 2012 elections were fought, but the money had no discernible impact on the outcome of most contests, according to an early analysis of ballot results and expenditures by the Washington Post.
A clutch of conservative billionaires and privately held corporations fueled about $1 billion in spending by super PACs and nonprofit groups this cycle, unleashing a wave of attack ads unrivaled in US history. Yet Republican groups and their donors failed to achieve their two overarching goals — to unseat President Obama and return the Senate to GOP control.
In the Senate, Republicans lost ground, pouring well over $100 million in outside money into a half-dozen seats that went to Democrats. In the presidential race, GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his allies spent more than twice as much as John McCain in 2008, but only regained red-leaning Indiana and North Carolina for their trouble.
Even in the House, where last-minute surges of cash would seem to stand a good chance of swinging races, GOP money groups struck out repeatedly, according to the Post analysis. In 26 of the most competitive House races, Democratic candidates and their allies were outspent in the final months of the race but pulled out a victory. That compares with 11 competitive races where Republicans were outspent and won.
Outside money was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which let corporations and unions spend unlimited funds on elections and created an new class of wealthy political groups.
The money did dramatically change the focus and character of many campaigns. Candidates up and down the ballot were forced to spend more time than ever raising donations, while political advertising funded by outsiders was even more negative than before. Wealthy donors were so central to Romney’s campaign that a swarm of private luxury jets caused a traffic jam at Logan International Airport just before the nominee’s Tuesday night election party in South Boston.
Yet super PACs and secretive nonprofit groups — which spent up to $10 million a day on the presidential race alone — couldn’t move the needle far enough to prevail in nearly any of the big races they targeted. Outside money allowed Romney to be competitive with Obama, but that meant the candidate had no direct control over much of the spending, while his own campaign was plagued by high personnel costs and consulting fees.
In the end, the two sides reached a kind of dreary equilibrium, clogging the airwaves with so many attack ads that GOP groups began airing spots in California and other deep-blue states where they had little chance. By October’s end, more than a million commercials were broadcast in a presidential race that was nearly dead heat for much of the year.
That is not to say that outside money did not matter: It was waves of super PAC cash that helped propel Romney to the Republican nomination earlier in the year.