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.