An unprecedented amount of money was spent in the 2012 election — some $6 billion in total. But the real slumbering scandal was how much of that was an infusion of cash from Super PACs – supposedly independent “political action committees” exercising their right to free speech on the election – and of so-called “dark money” into the campaign.
Thanks to a combination of the Supreme Court’s controversial “Citizens United” decision and an abuse of tax-exempt status by political groups allegedly dedicated to “social welfare” despite party affiliations, corporations and unions could flood the airwaves with negative advertisements without disclosing their names.
Republicans had a huge advantage, aided by the almost pathological hatred of Obama felt by many big-money boys, who see him as a socialist despite a doubling of the US stock market since March 2009, soon after his watch began.
In the end, just 100 individuals or companies accounted for more than half of the disclosed donations to Super PACs, according to OpenSecrets.org, and eight of the top 10 donors were Republicans – led by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who invested $53?million in the attempt to defeat President Obama.
Just three conservative outside groups that do not disclose the source of funds – Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, former adviser to George W Bush; the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity; and the US Chamber of Commerce – account for more outside spending than the next 17 outfits combined.
The unrelentingly negative air campaign was directly related to these stealth bombers. Some 88 per cent of the television ads in this election were negative, and four-fifths of those negative ads were attacks on Democrats, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. After all, why spend dark money on positive ads? The whole point is plausible deniability.
The imbalance was astounding. From late October, $75 million in undisclosed dark money had been deployed against Obama, while just $1?million was spent by outside groups to run positive ads in his defence. Romney saw the opposite dynamic on his behalf, albeit on a smaller scale: $5 million of such money was spent to attack him, while $8.8?million was spent on positive ads presenting him as the saviour of the economy.
The dark money trickled down to swing state Senate races as well. In Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine saw at least $11?million in outside ads directed against him, compared with just $11,000 in support. In Ohio, Democrat incumbent Sherrod Brown was attacked with $9.7 million in negative electioneering compared with just $100,000 in support.
Let’s be honest — this wasn’t just an attempt to tip the scales in Republicans’ favour. It was perilously close to an attempt to buy the election. But here’s the good news: it didn’t work. President Obama won all the swing states except North Carolina, and swing state Democratic Senate candidates swept in as well.
On election day, conservative consultants were busy calling their donors, assuring them that a Romney wave was on its way despite the polls, and praying their cheques would clear before the final results were in. As day turned to night, their calls tapered off as the feverish spin gave way to actual vote counting.
And so now comes the accounting and accusations. The creation of a partisan Super PAC economy created a gold rush for consultants during this election cycle — “the greatest windfall that ever happened for political operatives in American history” is how Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf described it to me. They got rich, but Republicans didn’t win. Karl Rove’s Crossroads empire spent at least $175 million of donors’ money to defeat Democrats and failed. What’s unclear is whether ideological billionaires will be willing to indulge these conservative con-jobs in the future.
Now is a time of recrimination and reflection for the Republican Party. Attempts to demonise the president did not work and the onslaught of negative ads backfired: exit polls showed Obama won the support of moderate voters by a 16 per cent margin over Romney. At the very least, this election showed there is a saturation point at which most voters tune out from unhinged attacks.
If this attempt to buy the election had proved successful, the precedent would have led to further escalation and degradation of our democracy. Instead, there is an opportunity for a reset of campaign finance regulations as well as strategy. Election 2012 provides this welcome lesson: dark money doesn’t always work and the positive can beat the negative in the end.