"Seldom has so much been spent for so little," opined Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution.
Most of the outside money went to Republicans; it was supposed to give them an edge. But it didn't prevent President Obama's reelection by a decisive margin in the Electoral College. Republicans failed to take the Senate, and several super PAC favorites flamed out. The GOP did keep the reins in the House.
Obama, for one, was the target of $386 million in negative ads from super PACs and nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors, known as "dark money" groups - more than double what Democratic-leaning groups spent on his behalf. Outside groups spent more than $37 million in Virginia's Senate race, $30 million in Ohio's, most to help the losing Republican candidates, George Allen and Josh Mandel, respectively.
To some extent, their network of super PACs and mega-rich donors boomeranged on Republicans. A few donors prolonged the primaries by propping up insurgent conservative candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. This exposed Mitt Romney to attacks on his private-equity career at Bain Capital and required the eventual nominee to spend more time genuflecting to the right on social issues - both things that hurt him in the fall.
The president was no slouch at fund-raising, often using the threat of the GOP's advantage in outside cash to prod his own donors, and the two sides were roughly equal in advertising dollars.
Yet there is no evidence that TV onslaughts influence many voters at the presidential level, says Diana C. Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Partisan attitudes predict about 80 percent of voter decisions before a fall race even starts, she says. Research suggests ads matter more in down-ballot races for obscure offices, where voters have less information to work with.
The political spending spree was triggered by the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which held that corporations and unions had a free-speech right to spend unlimited money backing favored candidates.
This election showed, however, that money isn't everything.
For instance, Obama had some fundamental advantages, including a growing perception that the economy was improving and a finely honed field organization designed to turn out supportive voters. He also benefited from some of Romney's weaknesses as a candidate.
There are technical limits on the power of the outside groups as well. They are still barred from direct coordination with campaigns, and television stations are required to sell time at a lower rate to the candidates themselves, giving them more reach for money spent.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, founder of the American Crossroads super PAC, which along with an affiliated dark-money group, Crossroads GPS, spent $300 million on Romney and congressional races, argued that the outside money was crucial.
"Look, if groups like Crossroads were not active, this race would have been over a long time ago," Rove said on FOX News on election night. "President Obama came out of the box on May 15 with $215 million of advertising over a 2½-month period, designed to demonize Mitt Romney."
While Romney was regrouping after the bruising primaries, Crossroads and groups like it kept him in the game by buying TV time in battleground states.
Despite this year's mixed record, analysts expect super PACs to be back as strong as ever in the 2014 midterms.
At least one congressman will have cash on hand if they come after him. Remember Jim Renacci, the Ohio Republican who decided to cancel $850,000 worth of advertising he had reserved for the final campaign push?
By the traditional rules of politics, it was a risk.
But Renacci won by 15,499 votes. Maybe voters rewarded him for not adding to the noise on their TVs.
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
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