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Time to Second-Guess Super PACs

Updated: 11:12 a.m.

It’s been tempting for pundits and analysts to cast Republican super PACs and advocacy organizations as the big losers in this election.

GOP-allied groups spent the vast bulk of the more than $1 billion that outside groups showered on the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That doesn’t even include the additional tens of millions of dollars that politically active nonprofits, many affiliated with the GOP, spent on “issue ads” that fall outside the reporting rules.

But while Republicans have already launched into recriminations and second-guessing, it’s too early to write off the GOP’s well-funded super PAC and nonprofit allies. Republicans have built up an influential network of unrestricted outside groups that is here to stay and whose organizers are poised to shift their focus from the campaign trail to high-dollar policy fights over taxes and spending.

To be sure, Republican super PACs such as American Crossroads and Restore Our Future spent hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign ads and other expenditures and failed to deliver either the White House or the Senate to the GOP. The battle for control of the House, too, did not appreciably change the status quo.

But had GOP outside groups not swooped in to help GOP nominee Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor would have been badly outspent by President Barack Obama. The effect of super PACs and their allies, moreover, was greatest in House contests further down the ballot.

Even so, the results bore out the political science adage that campaign money reaches a point of diminishing returns. Candidates must raise enough to hit the minimum threshold spending to introduce themselves to voters and get their messages out. But once that threshold is reached, additional money doesn’t necessarily pay dividends.

That may help explain why Democrat-friendly super PACs and nonprofits, while vastly outspent by their GOP counterparts, are engaging in a little self-congratulation. The top Democratic super PACs — Priorities USA Action, Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge 21st Century — won over some big donors but never caught up with their GOP counterparts. But their presence was crucial, Democrats argue, in helping define Romney early on and in blunting the GOP outside money advantage.

“This could have been a whole lot worse had we not all participated,” said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century. Mollineau’s opposition research group spent only about $335,400 on ads and $15 million overall, between its super PAC and affiliated nonprofit. But American Bridge took credit for publicizing Missouri GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s politically fatal “legitimate rape” comment, which arguably cost him his Senate bid.

“I’d rather be us communicating with our donors than Karl Rove communicating with his,” Mollineau added, referring to the GOP operative behind the American Crossroads super PAC and its allied nonprofit, Crossroads GPS.

Now that the dust has settled, Republicans will be looking hard at how effectively their unrestricted money was spent. Obama’s superior ground operation is receiving credit for his swing state sweep on Election Day. He was considerably helped by his labor union allies, who spent plenty of money on ads but also concentrated heavily on get-out-the-vote and field operations.

Some Republicans argue that such activities would have been more effective than the tens of millions of dollars spent on GOP TV ads whose predictable grainy images and horror movie sound tracks began to make voters’ eyes glaze over. Super PACs pay higher ad rates than candidates and by law must operate at arm’s length from the politicians they back, meaning their ads typically don’t feature direct candidate messages.

Some GOP nonprofits did focus on field operations, including Americans for Prosperity, the multimillion-dollar conservative nonprofit backed by industrialists Charles and David Koch. But Republicans still spent too much on TV, said GOP organizer Ned Ryun, president and CEO of American Majority Action, a conservative nonprofit that spent virtually its entire $5 million budget on get-out-the-vote and ground activities.

“When looking at effectiveness and Return on Investment (ROI), TV is more of a bust than ever before,” Ryun wrote on the RedState website in August. “If donors want to invest to really impact elections, it’s time for a paradigm shift.”


This story has been updated to clarify that American Bridge 21st Century spent about $335,400 on ads, and some $15 million between its super PAC and affiliated nonprofit.

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