COLUMBUS, Ohio—For the past few weeks, whenever an Ohioan left his TV on for too long, he would see Sen. Sherrod Brown’s head on a cartoon body. He would see this more often than he saw Brown himself. The Now or Never PAC, funded by two Missouri millionaires, spent $1.2 million on a commercial in which a googly-eyed Brown stole money from families and coal plants. Another big buy, from Associated Builders and Contractors, portrayed Brown as a demented cartoon, sitting at a desk with an “I Love Taxes” coffee mug, rubber-stamping documents with an Obama campaign logo.
Democrats didn’t know what to make of this stuff. Today, after Brown clinched a 5-point win, his aides were still baffled by the stupid commercials. At a news conference in the Democratic Party headquarters, Brown predicted that “voters will, in a funny sort of way, welcome beer ads, car ads, and detergent ads.” He derided Karl Rove—whose American Crossroads GPS spent millions on the presidential race in Ohio—as someone who “doesn’t understand Ohio like he thinks he does” and whose ad strategy was “pretty discredited” by the humiliating losses.
Brown might have a point. 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.
Here’s one theory for the failure: Their ads were stupid. The Democratic super PAC ads were better. I can’t mind-meld with every Ohio voter, but in the time I spent here and in other swing states, the ads I saw from conservative PACs were lazy and patronizing, designed to push buttons that may or may not have actually existed.
The cartoon ads from smaller PACs were obviously bad, but the cruddiness of Restore and Crossroads commercials was quite subtle. One of the final Crossroads commercials, titled “Sack It,” showed an actress in her 40s watching a TV in her expensive-looking kitchen and sighing about Barack Obama.
A companion ad called “Debate” put the same woman in a different part of her classy home, watching “Morning Joe” on an iPad as familiar minor-key piano music conveyed her disappointment.
I searched but did not find actual voters swayed by these ads. Their intentions were obvious—convince women that they were not alone and that whatever they thought of Obama before, they should be disappointed with him now. But they were prefab. Restore Our Future’s pro-Romney ads used file footage to let voters into an Obama dystopia, something that was extinguished by peals of laughter when Rick Santorum tried it.
A super PAC ad can’t cast the actual candidate talking to voters, which is a built-in weakness. But the initially weak Democratic super PAC Priorities USA gave Ohioans 30-second clips of real, angry ex-workers who blamed their misfortunes on Bain Capital. These were stone-cold rip-offs of ads that had brought down Romney 18 years ago, when he ran for U.S. Senate. Republicans PACs never found anything so effective in any race. The lameness, coupled with the omnipresence, fed a backlash. One of the best candidate ads all year came from Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrats’ winsome underdog for Senate in North Dakota. Her campaign put her in a batting cage, knocking back metaphorical attack ads that were “all paid for by a few billionaires who want to keep their tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas.” And she won.
A lot of people paid good money to make these ads. When I called around Wednesday, sadly, I had no luck reaching the super PAC donors who cut $100,000 or $1 million checks for useless filler. I did get to talk to some very nice maids. But I never learned, for example, how Lee Ainslie could make such solid stock picks and waste so much money on an effort to buy commercials for Romney at higher rates than Romney’s own campaign would have to pay. (Stations charge candidates cheaper rates than third-party groups.)
But maybe we’re making the wrong assumption about big donors. Maybe they have no idea how to spend their money effectively. Consider Sheldon Adelson, the cherubic casino magnate who became a Democratic supervillain this year. He spent $20 million propping up Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign, because Gingrich had been a pal to him on labor issues and Israel. Over the rest of 2012, he spent $33 million more on super PACs, which went on to lose everywhere. Adelson gave $1 million to a PAC supporting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, one of the year’s most entertaining candidates, running in a northern New Jersey district that looked hopeless. It was hopeless. Boteach lost by 49 points.
When Republicans dig out from under the rubble, there may come a reckoning with super PACs. Why did they whiff so badly? Why did they thrill to announcements of massive late buys, when the Democrats were putting bamboo shoots under Mitt Romney’s nails with targeted buys? Until and unless Barack Obama gets to shift the Supreme Court to the left, their money is a valid form of speech. They need to learn how to talk to people.