With little return on big ad buys, campaign strategists rethinking for 2014

GOP fund-raiser Robert B. Asher runs the Pennsylvania Future Fund PAC.
GOP fund-raiser Robert B. Asher runs the Pennsylvania Future Fund PAC. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: December 04, 2012

What do tens of millions of dollars in campaign advertising buy these days? Not that much, the 2012 election showed.

So, as they turn their eyes to 2014 and beyond, Pennsylvania's top political moneymen have already begun considering how better to marshal super PACs and other outside spending groups to influence future elections across the state.

After a much-hyped, yet ultimately disappointing showing in this year's campaign, such organizations must adapt to new strategies if they are to remain competitive in the Keystone State, the state's top Democratic and Republican fund-raisers say.

"There will be some question as to how much they can raise here in the future," said Robert B. Asher, a Republican National Committee member who runs one of the state's largest GOP political action committees, the Pennsylvania Future Fund. "After this year, people are going to want to know where their money went and what effect it's having."

Much was made of the impact super PACs and other outside groups might have on 2012 races, thanks to a series of federal court rulings that opened the floodgates for them to collect unlimited - and in some cases anonymous - contributions from individuals, corporations, and interest groups, and to spend it just as freely.

In all, such organizations spent more than $1 billion nationwide supporting candidates in this year's presidential and congressional races, according to tallies by two nonpartisan watchdog groups, the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics.

In Pennsylvania, nearly all the outside money went toward negative TV advertising.

But despite the millions invested here by groups with opaque names such as the Committee for Justice and Fairness, Patriot Majority, and Independence USA, super PACs and their ilk had little impact on the state's closest races, according to an Inquirer analysis of Federal Communications Commission records from the state's three largest broadcast television markets.

In all, outside groups shelled out $17.2 million for broadcast TV ad time in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. But separate ad purchases by candidates' campaigns dwarfed that number: They spent $28.7 million.

The campaigns of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, his GOP rival, Tom Smith, and President Obama all spent more on Pennsylvania airwaves than even the super PAC with the biggest wallet. The Mitt Romney-aligned Restore Our Future fund bought $2.5 million in ad time in hopes of making the state competitive, far less than the $5 million spent by Casey, $7.8 million by Smith, and $2.6 million by Obama over the course of the campaign.

Races where outside money made up the largest slice of overall TV ad spending turned out to be the least competitive on Election Day, the analysis showed.

Romney-aligned super PACs doled out $8.4 million between August and November - much of it in one final burst as the polls narrowed and Election Day neared - yet their candidate lost the state by more than 5 percentage points.

And though groups like the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee spent nearly a half-million to help the party's state attorney general candidate, David Freed, he lost to Democrat Kathleen Kane by nearly 15 points.

In some cases, PAC spending has been blamed for hurting the candidates it was intended to support.

The Western Pennsylvania showdown between U.S. Rep. Mark Critz and GOP challenger Keith Rothfus attracted more outside TV money than any other congressional race in the nation. Groups such as the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC and the Republican-backing Americans for Tax Reform dumped nearly $4.4 million into that race, a total nearly three times the combined $1.5 million that Critz and Rothfus spent on their own ads.

"Both campaigns lost control of their message with the outside groups vastly outspending their candidates," said Critz's campaign manager, Mike Mikus. "And in a lot of ways, nobody won. Everyone's negatives were really high, and it led to more balkanization of the electorate."

Critz lost his race by 3 percentage points.

Now, nearly a month after Election Day, Democratic- and Republican-aligned outside groups are already plotting strategy for 2014's midterm and state-level races across the country.

At a recent meeting in Washington, Democratic groups such as Priorities USA Action, the top PAC backing Obama's campaign, discussed further coordinating their efforts with one another, even though they still cannot coordinate with individual campaigns.

Republican fund-raising committees such as GOP strategist Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have already begun soliciting contributions for 2014.

But the poor return on investment they received in Pennsylvania, combined with the state's unique fund-raising landscape, makes it unlikely those outside groups will shell out amounts similar to those spent in 2012, some of Pennsylvania's top fund-raisers and campaign-finance experts predicted.

Because Pennsylvania is one of the few states that do not cap individual donations to candidates for state or local office, the allure of super PACs and their large pots of money is unlikely to become a factor in the 2014 race for the Governor's Office, said Adam C. Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer whose practice is focused primarily on campaign-finance law.

In congressional races in competitive districts, outside groups would be wise to adapt new strategies, said Asher, the Republican fund-raiser.

The fact that the amounts spent on TV ads appeared to have little correlation to election results in the presidential contest in Pennsylvania or the state attorney general's race has Asher thinking it is time to shift resources to new ways of reaching voters.

"I think it's probably now been proven that television and the expenditures of large amounts of money on television is not the answer," he said. "We'd do better to invest that money in social media."

Bonin surmised that outside groups may shift more of their money toward get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of a given candidate or turn their attention to candidate recruitment.

Still, he said, third-party fund-raisers may ultimately find themselves facing a larger problem in the state's culture and tradition of political giving.

"In Pennsylvania, it tends to be more transactional," the lawyer said. "People want to give money to the candidate, to be able to call them up on the phone, to have him call them for advice. It's harder to get contributors to believe that broader ideological causes warrant giving to outside groups for candidates you may never meet."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or follow @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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