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.