When it comes to how money influenced the outcome of the 2012 elections, there’s been one consistent refrain: Republican-supporting billionaires spent hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for it.
But aside from tracking the successes and failures of Sheldon Adelson and company, there were many more money-in-politics stories to emerge and lessons learned from the 2012 elections, during which candidates and political committees spent unprecedented amounts of cash.
Here are five key takeaways:
Spending early matters
It’s one of the top rules in politics: Define your opponent before he or she has a chance to define themselves.
President Barack Obama’s campaign went on the air early and often this summer, hitting Mitt Romney with a barrage of ads defining the GOP nominee as an out-of-touch millionaire who could not understand the plight of the middle class. Romney never really fought back until too late.
Obama’s campaign dropped about $245 million in May, June, July and August alone, while Romney, who legally could not access general election funds until after the convention, spent only $142 million and was unable to successfully counter the attacks from Obama and super PAC Priorities USA Action, which spent an additional $25 million on ads in the same period.
The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future spent $41 million during the same period, but Romney, who was coming off a hard-fought primary, was forced to take out a $20 million loan in August to replenish his coffers and keep up with Obama’s spending until the convention. The Republican National Committee also came to Romney’s aid but because of the structure of the party committee, the Romney campaign had no control of its funds before or after the convention.
Major Republican donors still believe the outcome could have been different if Romney had access to general election funds early on, a Romney bundler told POLITICO.
Karl Rove recently opined in The Wall Street Journal on the need to move up the Republican National Convention to allow the nominee to spend more in the early months of the general election.
“Holding the convention in late August made sense when candidates relied on public financing for the general election. That will never happen again,” Rove wrote. “The Romney campaign had tens of millions it couldn’t spend for months until he was officially nominated on Aug. 28. Future conventions should be held as early as late June.”
But it’s unclear if Romney would have spent heavily in the summer months even with access to his general election pot of money because the two campaigns had fundamentally contrasting views on when to spend the money. Obama’s campaign employed the strategy of spending big early on, when the airwaves were not as saturated, while Romney’s plan all along, according to GOP strategists, was to save his money for the homestretch, when the campaign believed his base would mobilize and undecided voters would make their decisions, POLITICO previously reported.
Turns out that Obama never really had to choose between airing ads early and late — the president continued to raise huge sums of cash, meaning his ad barrage never stopped until Election Day.
When running for an election, it’s probably best not to bet on yourself
Self-funded candidates continued the tradition of losing on election night in all but four of 24 races, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Linda McMahon led the pack of self-funded losers, putting in $40 million of her own money in her race against Democrat Chris Murphy for the Connecticut Senate seat. McMahon put in $50 million of her own money during her failed bid in 2010.
Some of the other Senate candidates who chipped in their own cash in the primaries or general election included David Dewhurst ($20.4 million, Texas), Tom Smith ($16.8 million, Pennsylvania), John Brunner ($7.9 million, Missouri) and Rob Sobhani ($6.4 million, Maryland).
The only primarily self-funded winner among Senate candidates was Ted Cruz, who put in $908,000 during the Texas Republican primary against Dewhurst.
On the House side, self-financing candidates fared slightly better. The biggest loser: independent Bill Bloomfield, who spent more than $6 million in a failed attempt to represent a California congressional district. Other losers included David Alameel ($4.5 million, Texas) and Joe Coors ($3.1 million, Colorado).
The three self-funded winners in House races were Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who gave her campaign $2.8 million; Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), who gave $2.3 million; and John Delaney (D-Md.) who gave nearly $1.9 million.
Corporations are testing out bold methods of political spending
When oil company Chevron donated $2.5 million to the pro-Republican Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC in October, it marked the highest-profile example of a publicly traded corporation directly injecting cash into political elections since the 2010 Citizens United decision.
And it could foreshadow a shift in corporations’ willingness to openly support political candidates and committees using money directly from their treasuries — something most have been reluctant to do, primarily for fear of public backlash, such as when Target angered customers after it donated money to a Minnesota organization that opposed gay marriage.
A post-election study by Demos found that business corporations accounted for $71.8 million, or 11 percent of all super PAC money.
A slew of corporations, including Google, General Electric, Ford and FedEx, also directly supported the GOP convention in Tampa this summer. And Duke Energy extended an eight-figure line of credit to the Democratic National Convention while other corporations helped fund a convention support organization. Meanwhile, a pair of conservative mega-donors, Harold Simmons and William Koch, donated millions of dollars through their respective companies, Contran Corp. and Oxbow Carbon, to various super PACs.
Corporations have already been funneling undisclosed amounts of money into politically active nonprofit groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, other trade associations and issue organizations. But since such money isn’t disclosed, corporate donors not only avoid bad PR that could arise from such contributions but also miss out on political benefits that could come with playing big-dollar politics.
In the post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape, corporations can make contributions directly to campaigns and committees. But most are still making use of the traditional method of giving through their political action committees — many even more so than during past elections.
PACs of several corporations gave significantly more this cycle than in the past two elections, according to data from CQ MoneyLine. For example, by mid-October, Goldman Sachs PAC had already given $1.3 million to federal parties and candidates — up from $1 million at the end of 2010 and $869,000 at the end of 2008.
The top 10 corporate political action committees alone gave $29.4 million as of mid-October — already about $4 million more than the top 10 total 2008 giving and on pace to rival or exceed 2010 giving, which was about $31 million.
By October, GE’s political action committee had donated $200,000 more than it did in 2010 and almost $500,000 more than it did in all of 2008. Verizon’s political action committee had given about $390,000 more compared with the end of 2010 and $280,000 more than it did in 2008.
Campaign finance reform? Good luck
Obama barely mentioned campaign finance reform during the 2012 campaign, and only a few members of Congress appear poised to press the issue next session.
“He’s just done squat on the money-in-politics issues — totally, absolutely, undeniably unsuccessful,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.
That Democrats won the White House and retained the Senate despite heavy Republican outside spending could throw another political wet blanket on reforms that a small, but vocal activist community considers tantamount to a healthy political system.
But further compounding matters: division among reformers on how to proceed.
Some see internal or institutional change — reinventing the Federal Election Commission, strengthening ethics regulations, again attempting to pass disclosure legislation — as the most practical and feasible route.
“The constitutional amendment people, they’ve just missed the point — they’re obsessed about corporations not being persons when there’s broader corruption,” said Larry Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and founder of reform group Rootstrikers.
Others are clamoring for a constitutional amendment, even a constitutional convention, that overturns the Citizens United decision.
“The institutional reformers are good, honest, smart people, but trying to reform the system within the system is a giant waste of time,” said Cenk Uygur, host of political show “The Young Turks” and leader of Wolf PAC, which supports a constitutional convention to remake the nation’s campaign finance system.
Meanwhile, David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, which prompted the eponymous Supreme Court case, is enjoying the show. "They can have as many great ideas as they want, but it's just not going to happen for them," Bossie said. "The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken."