Originally published in the Greater Lansing Business Monthly
On the night of the 2012 Presidential election, Donald Trump tweeted, “Thanks, Karl Rove for wasting $400 million.”
He wasn’t the only one complaining. Of the eight candidates backed by Rove’s super PAC, seven lost. Each race was a toss-up going in. Billionaire Shel Adelson spent upwards of $75 million to attack Romney on behalf of Gingrich, then Romney on behalf of Santorum, then Obama on behalf of Romney. Each lost in succession. Conservative super PACs saw similarly dismal results across the board, losing more than a dozen national races that had seemed all but assured.
What happened? Conservative strategists missed a shift in American demography, to be sure. But even that might have been overcome had they noted an equally fundamental shift in media markets. Their collective take on both the electorate and the media would prove fatally anachronistic.
In his written dissent to Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the way for super PACs, Justice Stevens warned that unlimited corporate money could come to dominate “the marketplace of ideas” and effectively shanghai the electoral process. But as corporate marketers know all too well, the media marketplace is getting harder, not easier to dominate. Twenty years ago, a huge influx of cash might indeed have overwhelmed the electoral conversation. But in an online world where voters choose their own information; where candidates’ statements live on in perpetuity; where Facebook communities are tearing down ideological silos; where authenticity is the universal currency and dissemination is punished; the ability to create brands and candidacies out of whole cloth is already a distant memory. For the moment, it appears the free market of ideas is alive and well.
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Part of the difficulty of managing a super PAC stems from the nature of the beast. Super PACs are inherently transient. Most are formed to support narrow ideologies over a short timeframe, with little ability to develop the kinds of online constituencies that increasingly drive campaigns. Super PACs have no souls to speak of. They offer no sweeping public vision, no coherent character, no popular presence beyond the brands of the candidates they support. By early 2012, the Republican brand was seriously damaged. From the outset, managers of conservative super PACs complained that their candidates were unelectable. But many observers, including Rove’s own political director, Carl Forti, maintain that super PACs actually created the problem during the primaries by keeping afloat candidacies that were otherwise unsustainable. Once those candidates entered the general election, their offbeat opinions would hound them like so many mangy strays. In 1992, a casual comment about legitimate rape or the 47 percent might have faded into the night. In 2012, they became instant YouTube sensations.
Another obstacle to super PACs was the one set in place by the Citizens United decision: Super PAC administrators are legally barred from coordinating with candidates. They might wink and nod and talk off the record with campaign staffers, but they are specifically banned from sharing party databases. Without the campaigns’ critical targeting data, the 2012 super PACs were more or less confined to traditional “push” media—TV, print, banner ads, radio—and left to make their own best guesses as to which voters represented their best prospects. Along the way, they paid dearly to reach many more who did not.
The Obama campaign, by contrast, devoted unprecedented sums to digital media. They spent the early part of 2012 consolidating databases, developing analytic protocols and constructing detailed profiles of their likely supporters. They learned, for example, that voters who had unsubscribed from their email list in 2008 were among the easiest to draw back with a little personal attention. They found that voters responded better to local phone calls than to those from out-of-state offices. They tested different messages, different presentations—even different colors—among various demographic groups, and when they achieved a degree of statistical certainty, they applied the results to everything from TV buys to social media to door knocks.
The super PACs’ inability to coordinate with campaigns led to other problems, most notably in the realm of messaging. During a recent panel discussion at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Forti described weekly meetings among the heads of conservative PACs to discuss message and spending strategies. “It was a very coordinated effort to make sure that from Memorial Day on someone was on the air attacking Barack Obama,” Forti said. The problem, he said, was that those strategic decisions were often at odds with the campaigns themselves. “A number of donors and people in the larger center-right community were eager for a more spirited and aggressive effort,” he said. While such an approach might prove “viscerally satisfying,” Forti said, research suggested that attacks on the popular President would backfire. The donors reportedly came around to a less pointed approach. But of all the conservative super PAC money spent in the general election, nearly 85 percent went to attack ads.
By embracing broadcast and cable as their primary vehicles, super PACs set themselves up for another fall. Marketers have known for decades that there comes a saturation point at which further ad spending is wasted. But in practical terms, that rule applies only to push media. When voters opt-in to campaign emails and newsfeeds—that is, when they actively seek information from candidates—the saturation point disappears. Super PACs spent more than $300 million in the eight weeks leading up to the election—more than all combined spending in the 2000 campaign—with most of the conservative effort focused on televised attack ads. While the numbers are still out, it is all but inconceivable that voters would not have reached that saturation point by late October, when a decisive number of swing voters were still up for grabs. Conservative super PACs pressed on with their carpet bombing, while the opposition took to the tunnels and recruited, one by one, the wavering villagers.
The GOP will undoubtedly refashion itself around a more compelling popular vision. They will close the database divide, quickly, and regain tactical parity with the Democrats. And while money will continue to drive politics, the days of counterfeit candidacies are gone. Transparency, authenticity, and long-term consistency are the new political coin, and both parties will emerge richer for the change.