After about $1 billion spent on more than one million presidential campaign ads -- the vast majority negative -- the race enters its final days in the same way both campaigns predicted it would a year ago: too close to call.
To Republicans, the even state of the race shows that super political action committees and other groups successfully blunted President Barack Obama’s cash advantage over challenger Mitt Romney. To Democrats, it’s a triumph for an incumbent subjected to roughly $208 million in attacks ads amid historically weak economic ratings.
To noncombatants, it’s the latest evidence that 2010 court rulings permitting corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums on elections are escalating a political arms race that shows no signs of abating.
“The campaigns talk about micro-targeting; it’s more like carpet-bombing,” said John G. Geer, a political scientist at Nashville-based Vanderbilt University who has studied negative advertising. “It’s a Catch-22. If one side spends it, the other side can’t not spend it.”
Lessons learned from this year’s presidential campaign may only exacerbate the money race four years from now, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
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“Candidates, before they decide to run, will cultivate billionaires” who can donate to friendly super-PACs, she said of the groups that take unlimited contributions. “I think you are going to see candidates coming into the campaign with billionaires in tow.”
Between April, when Romney clinched his Republican primary victory, and Oct. 28, there were 1,086,162 ads aired in the presidential race, with Democrats financing 568,269 compared with 517,893 backed by pro-Romney forces, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
A majority of the ads -- 87 percent -- carried a negative tone, the data shows, compared with 13 percent positive.
The president’s re-election campaign dominated the Democratic commercials -- 87 percent overall, with 84 percent of those negative. On the Republican side, Romney’s campaign controlled just 36 percent of the ads while 52 percent were the product of super-PACs and other groups. And of all the Republican commercials, 91 percent were attack ads.
It’s a ratio that some political strategists say wasn’t helpful to Romney or effective with voters.
“It was way too much, way too early, way too negative and way too long,” Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to former President George W. Bush, said in an e-mail about the super-PACs. “I’d say 95 percent of all outside group spending is wasted. It’s all negative, most of it cheaply produced and it just becomes a wall of white noise. Voters aren’t stupid.”
Ultimately, voters will determine on Election Day whether the television air war waged by the outside groups represents a savvy new tactic or a squandering of cash, particularly by a handful of billionaires who sunk millions into an effort to unseat Obama. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife top that ranking, having donated $53 million to super-PACs backing Romney and other Republicans.
For the entire 2012 campaign, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that outside groups including American Crossroads, a group formed with guidance from former Bush adviser Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business-backed organization putting money into congressional races, will spend $1 billion -- or $276 million more than spent in the 2008 elections.
Before Election Day, some conclusions already are drawn.
The top pro-Romney super-PAC, Restore Our Future, was instrumental in helping the former Massachusetts governor capture his party’s nomination against lesser-funded rivals.
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was surging in Iowa in December, Restore Our Future sponsored $18.7 million in negative ads against him. In January, as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum gained momentum, the group unleashed $21.3 million in attacks to block his rise.
“Restore destroyed the candidacies of Gingrich and Santorum,” Jamieson said.
A broader roster of super-PACs got into the race after Santorum withdrew from the primaries in early April, and the Obama campaign invested millions in an early run of attack ads aimed at the prospective Republican nominee.
With Romney’s campaign off the air and low on funds, Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group funded in part by energy billionaires David and Charles Koch, came to his defense with an ad attacking the Obama administration’s economic stimulus measure as wasteful.
When that group went off the air, American Crossroads stepped in -- a pattern that continued throughout the summer in the run-up to the party’s August convention in Tampa, Florida.
Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, said his organization intends to spend about $80 million on the campaign in an effort to “make sure the campaign focus is on Obama’s handling of the economy, and that’s been achieved here.”
While ads criticizing Obama prevented the president from gaining an insurmountable lead over Romney, they didn’t sink his candidacy. They also did little to prop up the Republican.
“The goal of negative ads by independent expenditure groups was to harm the other guy’s image,” said J. Ann Selzer, founder of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based polling company that conducts surveys for Bloomberg News. ‘Obama seemed immune, as his favorables have consistently been higher than his unfavorables,” she said. “Romney has consistently suffered, with unfavorables consistently higher than his favorables.”
Elizabeth Wilner, CMAG vice president, said the president’s spring assault “was met with almost no pushback in the form of positive advertising on the other side. You could count on one hand the number of unique ads that were positive about Romney before Labor Day.”
Romney’s image pushed into positive range for the first time after the Oct. 3 Denver debate, in which both sides agree he outperformed the president and undercut the images drawn of him in Obama’s attack ads.
On Sept. 30, Romney’s favorable rating stood at 45 percent, his unfavorable 48 percent, according to Pollster.com. On Oct. 4, his favorable rating was 47 percent, unfavorable 46.
“They could have established Romney as a far more credible, relateable and respected candidate” if the outside groups and Romney campaign had invested earlier in more positive, biographical ads, said Peter Hart, a Democratic polling specialist.
The Republicans’ reliance on super-PACs and other groups to counter Obama’s $193 million financial advantage over Romney also disadvantaged their nominee when it came to controlling the contours and costs of the race.
So far, the presidential contest has been waged in about nine competitive states first identified by the Obama campaign. Romney in the past week has tried to stretch that map by running ads in such states as Pennsylvania -- a move that may come too late.
It’s a strategic move that candidates, not super-PACs, can attempt, said Tad Devine, a chief strategist to 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry. “If you don’t have the commitment of the candidate to visit a state, build a ground game, you simply can’t be that aggressive.”
In contrast, Obama, by controlling the vast majority of the money raised for his re-election, has been able to blunt the super-PAC attacks by taking advantage of lower advertising costs that federal law requires TV stations to provide to candidates. Super-PACs, because of demands for time, are often forced to pay premiums for prime times.
In Nevada, for instance, Obama has run 49,290 ads at a cost of $24 million. It cost Republican outside groups $14 million to air fewer than half as many, just 18,942.
Despite any limitations, Anthony Corrado, a professor of campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said: “I find it hard to see any reason super-PACs will go away any time soon.”
Democrats toyed with a similar model in 2004, when such wealthy donors as billionaire investor George Soros helped back voter mobilization and an advertising arm to boost Kerry.
After 2008 nominee Senator John McCain was outspent more than 2-1 by Obama, Republicans began fine-tuning their operation in the 2010 midterms, which helped their party regain control of the House, and now await the verdict of 2012.
“President Obama leveraged his incumbency to outspend Mitt Romney by more than $154 million on the TV airwaves -- mostly ads attacking Romney’s personal character,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads. “Center-right outside groups countered the president’s incumbent advantage,” he said, “to level the playing field.”
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