A summer of vast campaign spending and dark warnings about sinister, secret donors is on the verge of being replaced by a fall in which rich men spend a lot of time explaining to their wives why they wasted millions of dollars.
The secret story of political money has always been the disdain with which much of the political class views donors: They are meddlers and dilettantes, full of terrible advice and inane questions. And donors are justifying that disdain in 2012 as never before. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, by far the worst of this cycle’s political investors, put $10 million behind Newt Gingrich after he had effectively lost the primary campaign. Other groups have poured millions into states their party is unlikely to contest — like Pennsylvania. And perhaps worst of all, their messages often have more to do with donors’ priorities than with a winning ticket. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has drawn particular grumbling for ads whose goal, critics say, is more about ideology than victory in November, its daily message determined, one rival SuperPAC operative jabbed, by “whatever the Koch brothers had for breakfast.”
“They throw millions of dollars at the wall to see if it sticks,” marveled Jonathan Prince, a veteran Democratic consultant who ran the an arm of the Democratic National Committee’s ad spending in 2008, of the political action of the ultra-wealthy.
The hard-fought Republican primary and the intense conservative opposition to President Obama has meant that the 2012 cycle has been dominated by outside spending by Republicans, though a pro-Obama SuperPAC, labor unions, and environmental and abortion-rights groups have also spent heavily. But when critics of political spending cite the massive numbers invested in presidential politics this cycle — $2.5 billion by November— it’s easy to forget that this is some of the least effective spending in the world.
“These fat cats are never politically informed. A good percentage of them are very politically naive — politics are not their thing,” said Richard Born, a professor of political science at Vassar College, who cited the growing sophistication of political consultants at separating donors from their money.
And indeed, whether Mitt Romney wins or loses, the professional political class has already scored a victory.
“Rich people aren’t wasting money this cycle,” quipped Republican consultant and former Romney adviser Alex Castellanos to BuzzFeed. “Remember, media consultants have to eat, too.”
Donors’ lack of political sophistication was on full display at the notorious, covertly recorded Romney fundraiser in Florida in May, in which Romney’s writing off 47% of Americans as mere government wards went on to dominate the campaign. If Romney was sometimes off message, the donors were far worse.
One donor sternly advised that Romney appear on more daytime talk shows because “women especially do not watch debates.”
Another asked, “to what extend do people really understand that we’re hurtling toward a cliff,” said the donor. “Do people get it?”
Romney indulged one donor in a long exchange regarding the ways in which the candidate might “duplicate” the Iran hostage crisis. “If you get the call as president, and you had hostages,” he started. “Yeah,” said Romney.
The donor continued: “I’m suggesting that something that you say over the next few months gets the Iranians to understand that their pursuit of the bomb is something that you would predict.”
And the candidate, of course, treated each pronouncement as the wisdom of the sages. “I appreciate the idea,” Romney told his donor.
“The art is picking out the good advice once in a while and then politely declining the rest,” said Prince. “Hearing crazy shit from donors is not new.”
President Obama has warned that Democrats will be badly outspent in 2012, a call meant to alarm and inspire the small donors who have helped fuel his political career. Obama campaign email blasts this cycle are frequent and, often, desperate. On July 10, an email from Barack Obama — subject line: “I will be outspent”; on July 13, Deputy Campaign Manager Julianna Smoot — “This is potentially devastating”; and on Sept. 5, no more than an hour after his Democratic National Convention speech, President Bill Clinton — “Absolutely urgent.”
And while the Romney campaign is reportedly struggling to keep up with Obama’s own spending, those same reports typically say SuperPACs are filling the gap.
But what the SuperPACs are using to fill that gap is hardly the laser-focused, hard-hitting stuff of textbook campaigns. Instead it’s a welter of mixed messages. One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages: American Crossroads was attacking Obama over the deficit; Americans for Prosperity was dwelling on a failed solar energy company, Solyndra; and Restore Our Future was talking about jobs.
At times, the messages haven’t just been scattered, but have actually been flatly contradictory. The Iowa-based American Future Fund spent $4 million on an ad painting Obama as a captive of Wall Street — roughly the opposite of Romney’s message that the president is an enemy of capitalism.
The pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA, which spent much of the year on the receiving end of unflattering comparisons between its fundraising and the Republicans’, used its relatively limited resources — as of the end of June, they’ve raised just $16 million this year — on a single message: That Romney’s private sector work destroyed middle class jobs, and that Romney is an enemy of the middle class. And now, it’s Democrats who are taking time to gloat.
“At Priorities we’re confident that with the resources we’ve had we’ve made a real impact in this race,” said the group’s Bill Burton. “I’m not sure every group can say that.”
Officials at the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about their donors.
But the flood of Republican money, and its lack of obvious impact, have done little to reverse the inside political perception of donors as something short of political geniuses.
“There’s absolutely no correlation between the size of the bank account and the size of the IQ, and anybody who raises money will second that,” said Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “A lot of wealthy people are surprisingly ignorant about politics.”
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