In the 2012 election, one candidate took advantage of the loosening of campaign finance to rack up over a billion dollars in donations, spend nearly three times as much as his opponent on mostly negative ads, and break records for total amount of spending. His name was Barack Obama.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court handed down the landmark case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case heralded by many as a step forward for free speech and denounced by just as many as a decision that would sell America down the river to corporate interests for as long as it was considered binding law.

The explosion of money in politics gave birth to Super PACs, a new class of billionaire donors, and even (arguably) the Occupy Wall Street mass movement, which consistently placed the reversal of Citizens United at or near the top of all unofficial lists of demands it released.

There is little doubt that the explosion of money in this year’s race has fundamentally altered the dynamics of campaigning in American politics. Both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign have raised money in the neighborhood of a billion dollars just on their own (Obama just a little over, and Romney just a little under).

Super PACS have layered on top of them even further, flooding swing states especially with ad after ad. Candidates previously thought to be dead have hung on longer than they otherwise would because of the support of particular billionaires, while the loss of funding from independent sources overmissteps may cost some previous favorites their victory.

So given money’s transformative power in this race, and given that we now know the outcome, we should ask the obvious question: What effect, precisely, has the money had? The answer is that, despite the fury of the Left over the potential of Citizens United to skew the election on behalf of corporate power, that has not happened. In fact, the amount of money spent in the election has been relatively even on both sides, and certainly even the supposedly Leftist, anti-business Obama campaign has been able to raise over $1 billion this election cycle.

And how was that massive amount of money spent? Here we turned primarily to the one institution that almost exclusively focuses on tracking money – the Wesleyan Media Project in Middletown, Connecticut, which has been tracking the amount of money spent by the two Presidential campaigns, as well as all Super PACs, since the election began.

Wesleyan’s table tabulating the final amount of election spending follows:

Table 1: Top Spenders in Presidential Ad Race (April 11 to October 29)
Sponsor

Affiliation

Est.Cost

Ads Aired

# of markets

Barack Obama

Democrat

$265,981,040

 503,255

63

Mitt Romney

Republican

$105,393,980

 190,784

78

Restore Our Future, Inc.

Republican

$57,611,970

 60,366

64

American Crossroads

Republican

$56,864,790

 64,441

60

Crossroads GPS

Republican

$45,886,280

 74,092

67

Americans For Prosperity

Republican

$35,936,760

 43,091

55

Priorities USA Action

Democrat

$32,486,610

 53,612

32

RNC & Mitt Romney

Republican

$23,936,420

 32,638

42

Republican National Committee

Republican

$21,420,260

 31,258

69

DNC & Barack Obama

Democrat

$15,309,090

 7,210

53

Americans For Job Security

Republican

$9,409,230

 8,838

36

American Future Fund

Republican

$6,950,330

 6,722

42

Republican Jewish Coalition

Republican

$4,648,330

 3,136

4

Concerned Women For America

Republican

$4,400,360

 3,132

21

Planned Parenthood Action Fund

Democrat

$3,387,130

 3,160

6

Thomas Peterffy

Republican

$1,481,580

 653

11

SEIU COPE

Democrat

$1,277,790

 1,512

4

NRA Political Victory Fund

Republican

$1,158,380

 2,187

19

The numbers show a relatively even race, and the fact that President Obama’s own campaign tops the list certainly does much to refute the perception that increased money in politics necessarily favors the Right. President Obama’s victory, which surprised many, but was forecast with increasing certainty in the polls leading up to election day, also shows a strong correlation with this massive amount of spending by his campaign. The Romney camp, meanwhile, spent much less, with most of their financial advantage coming from outside groups such as Super PACs.

This financial advantage was a persistent feature of the 2012 election cycle. Immediately following the Democratic National Convention, Obama’s post-convention “bounce” was, as the Wesleyan Media Project documented at the time, merely an effect of Obama outspending the Romney campaign 2 to 1 over the previous two weeks, and 7 to 1 overall. Here is their chart from that period:

Table 1: Ad Airings by Sponsor in Past Two Weeks

 

Sponsor

Est. spending

# Ads

Favored candidate

Barack Obama

$19,598,700

37,230

Obama

Americans For Prosperity

5,607,000

7,354

Romney

Mitt Romney

3,344,530

4,503

Romney

American Crossroads

1,039,550

2,819

Romney

Priorities USA Action

1,056,120

2,764

Obama

Restore Our Future

2,486,570

2,711

Romney

DNC & Barack Obama

280,310

606

Obama

SEIU Cope

186,390

374

Obama

RNC & Mitt Romney

264,480

308

Romney

Susan B. Anthony List

135,270

84

Romney

*Totals are from August 26 through September 8.  Numbers include broadcast television and national cable spots.SOURCE:  Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project

It was only in the last month of the election, on the other hand, when the Romney campaign managed to keep pace with the Obama campaign in spending, perhaps accounting for a decent share of their increased standing in the polls. However, by that point it was probably too little, too late, considering the campaign was also the most negative yet.

Table 6: Tone in Presidential Advertising by Favored Candidate (2000-2012)
Promote Contrast Attack

2012

pro-Obama

2.5%

33.7%

63.8%

pro-Romney

15.4%

23.3%

61.3%

2008

pro-Obama

27.7%

18.4%

53.9%

pro-McCain

31.6%

8.5%

59.9%

2004

pro-Kerry

56.8%

41.9%

1.3%

pro-Bush

43.1%

17.3%

39.6%

2000

pro-Gore

22.7%

33.6%

43.7%

pro-Bush

70.5%

12.5%

17.0%

Percentages based on an analysis of broadcast television and national cable spots aired from Sept 9 – Sept 30 for each year. Totals in 2012 are based on ongoing Wesleyan Media Project coding of Kantar Media/CMAG presidential airings. 2000-2008 percentages are from the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

 

Money also led to the defeat of several other relatively tenacious candidates. In Missouri, Todd Akin was arguably most crippled after nearly every major conservative advocacy group pulled their support for his campaign. However, in general, the relation between spending and victory on the Senate side was muddier, as many races where the amount of spending was more or less even produced lopsided results:

Race

Total $

Dem $

Rep $

% IG

Ohio

$6,006,570

$2,588,710

$3,417,860

53.2%

Massachusetts

$5,920,670

$2,990,630

$2,930,040

0.0%

Virginia

$4,996,680

$2,496,410

$2,500,270

52.3%

Florida

$4,573,340

$1,946,940

$2,626,400

47.7%

Nevada

$4,142,620

$1,997,510

$2,145,110

45.4%

Connecticut

$3,724,510

$921,810

$2,802,700

4.1%

Indiana

$3,716,230

$1,573,450

$2,142,780

44.0%

Wisconsin

$3,636,860

$1,982,070

$1,654,790

48.3%

Pennsylvania

$3,049,390

$823,480

$2,225,910

0.0%

Arizona

$1,868,990

$1,462,270

$406,720

5.6%

New Mexico

$1,813,060

$840,490

$972,570

12.1%

Montana

$1,738,280

$813,980

$924,300

29.9%

Missouri

$1,599,730

$1,370,550

$229,180

6.0%

North Dakota

$1,021,470

$517,780

$503,690

37.5%

Nebraska

$933,450

$546,300

$387,150

24.4%

Numbers include broadcast television.
SOURCE:  Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

 

So what might account for this apparent divorce in the Senate races? The answer is unclear, but in all likelihood, the more even distribution of tone may have been involved, as well as a few trickle-down effects from the admittedly lopsided Presidential contest. For instance, in many states, Obama’s coattails pulled candidates with even spending to victory (Ohio, Massachusetts), whereas in others incompetent candidates took themselves out of the running (Indiana).

In short, the story of this election is precisely the story many Leftists feared would occur following Citizens United: The story of a triumph of one campaign which massively outspent its rivals and dragged them down using relentlessly negative, fear-driven campaigning, with a result that projected decisive coat tails.

The twist, of course, is that it was the Left’s own campaign that did it.

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