Super Pacs: 2012’s Bond Villains or a Giant Waste of Money?

Conservative super PACs worked together to coordinate their messaging and advertising against President Barack Obama.

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Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.
Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The so-called "super PACs" had quite a year. They were initially painted as the Bond villains of the 2012 campaign: mysterious figures with apparently unlimited resources determined to dominate the political world. Then after the election they were written off in some quarters as political wastrels, burning through enormous sums of money without apparent return. To hear the masters of the super PAC universe tell it last week however, neither descriptive applied.

One study released shortly after the election found that American Crossroads, the super PAC which Karl Rove helped found, got the worst bang for its buck in terms of supporting winning candidates. But Carl Forti, political director at American Crossroads, pushed back against the idea that the groups failed. "When you look at the fact that between April 1 and Labor Day, Obama outspent Romney by over $100 million," Forti said. "We would not be talking about this race the way we are right now—it wouldn't have existed like it did in September and October if that were allowed to happen unchecked."

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

The heads of the conservative super PACs would sit down together on a weekly basis, Forti said, to discuss their messages and advertising. "It was a very coordinated effort to make sure that from Memorial Day on someone was on the air attacking Barack Obama," he said.

Forti was speaking at Harvard University's quadrennial election postmortem conducted by the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government. Forti and the heads of several other major super PACs gave a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the outside spending groups, how they made their spending decisions, and what they think they accomplished in the election.

One thing most political observers agree on is that super PACs had a major impact during the GOP primaries, at different times keeping Romney or his opponents afloat when their campaigns hit rough patches. Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who ran a super PAC allied with the president, and others agreed that without super PACs, Romney might not have emerged from the primaries. Asked who the GOP nominee would have been, Forti replied: "I don't know that we know. Rick Santorum was the last man standing but had super PACs not been involved the whole way along [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich might have won it out of the gate."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Other items from inside the world of super PACs:

The cancer ad. Priorities USA Action, an Obama allied super PAC run by former presidential aide Burton, ran the most controversial ad in the election cycle, a vicious piece which featured a Bain downsizing victim named Joe Soptic recounting how his wife got cancer and died after he lost his job. It became known simply as the "cancer ad" and even prompted FactCheck.org to post an article on the question, "Is Romney to Blame for Cancer Death?" (The group pointed out, among other things, that Soptic's wife didn't lose health insurance because of his plant closing.) The Obama campaign distanced itself from the hugely controversial spot. Burton stood by it. What else was he going to do in the middle of the campaign? Now that the campaign is over does he have any regrets? "No, I don't," he said when asked about the controversial spot. "For starters, we didn't say that Mitt Romney caused someone to get cancer. And I think you have to presuppose that voters are idiots to think that they would take that from that ad."

Burton was quizzed by moderators Gwen Ifill of PBS and Rick Berke of the New York Times about the famed cancer ad. "Just to be clear, as you go on in your political career would you again recommend and endorse and condone an ad like that?" Berke asked. "Did you learn anything? Do you have any regrets or do you feel totally comfortable with that decision?" Burton quipped, "I guess I know where you stand on the issue" before declining to give Berke the mea culpa he was looking for. "I think it's impossible to take some hypothetical—" he said when Berke pressed whether he would do it again. "It's not a hypothetical," the reporter interrupted. "Well actually, when you say, ‘Would you,' sort of by definition it's hypothetical," Burton shot back.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Super PACs Harming U.S. Politics?]

His bottom line was coldly pragmatic. "If you look at what happened politically during that entire period, it was probably a week where we were just getting pounded by a lot of the folks in this room," he said. "But the whole result of that was we spent a week talking about Mitt Romney's business experience after which probably not a lot of people walked away from that saying, ‘Oh, that was a positive that Governor Romney had that business experience.'"

The Wright stuff. One problem the conservative super PACs quickly ran into was figuring out how precisely to attack Obama. "The kind of traditional negative campaign that the Obama campaign did and Bill Burton did to great effect was not available on our side," said Steven Law, American Crossroads's president.

Their research found that the kind of swing voters they were trying to reach had supported Obama four years ago and still liked him personally. As a result, the kind of attacks that might be effective against the president were based on his record, not on ideology or character. "A number of donors and people in the larger center-right community were eager for a more spirited and aggressive effort," Law said, adding that they were eventually convinced that the less pointed attacks were the way to go, even if "it was not viscerally satisfying." Personal attacks, he said, "in our research would have significantly backfired or been ineffective."

[See Photos: Obama Behind the Scenes.]

One example that got a lot of media attention during the campaign was a proposal for an ad campaign based on Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial statements attracted negative attention to the Obama campaign in the 2008 race. Brian Baker, who ran the Ending Spending Action Fund, which received the proposal, explained that he thought it ad campaign would not only be ineffective but could have been divisive and actually fired up Obama's supporters. He asked for polling data to back up the line of attack, he said, only to find out that it hadn't been polled.

Asked if Jeremiah Wright was ever considered as a line of attack against Obama, Forti replied: "Considered? Sure. … [But] none of the research, the polling, the focused groups, anything indicated it would work."

Donor maintenance. The conservative super PAC operatives said that while they kept their donors updated on their activities, their benefactors rarely pressed specific lines of attack, even if they needed some convincing to forsake the "viscerally satisfying" arguments.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be Less Disclosure in Campaign Finance?]

Burton had a somewhat different experience. "When I picked up the phone and talked to a donor, everybody had an idea about an ad," he said. "Maybe it's just because we have such a big part of the creative community in Hollywood and New York."

Some of the more far out ideas, he said, included running ads focused on wind energy or on judges. "Everybody had a cause that they wanted" to push, he said.

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