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How Super PACs Warped the 2012 Election

American democracy's downhill slide continued in 2012.
 
 
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One of the mainstream media takeaways from the 2012 election is that the biggest outside donors—particularly for the GOP—were not very savvy investors by giving millions to super PACs and shadow groups that ended up backing losing causes and candidates.

A quick scan of this week’s headlines sums up this conclusion. The Washington Post had “Spending by independent groups had little election impact, analysis finds.” Politico had “The billion-dollar bust.” The New York Times had “Little to show for cash-flood of big donors.” Roll Call’s was “Time to second-guess super PACs.” The L.A. Times had “Effect of ‘super PACs’ proved to be less than expected.”

“While the conventional wisdom seems to be gelling around ‘Look, super PACs don’t matter,’ the reality for voters and candidates is much different,” wrote Adam Smith, the spokesman for the reform group Public Campaign, in his daily press clip compilation.

“When facing an avalanche of outside spending, candidates had to spend even more time raising money, less time with their constituents, and small donors voices were drowned out,” he continued. “Voters despise the non-stop negative ads from billionaire-backed super PACs. Candidates fear them and are forced to depend on deep-pocketed donors to keep up. These are not insignificant impacts.”

There’s even more to it—and a lot more than what the Times reported: that the old men who raised multi-millions for Romney were boarding their chartered jets in Boston with dour faces and group hugs

“I saw these articles too,” said Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist and an AlterNet contributor. “Big cash mutates the whole thing.”

The damage that 2012’s meteoric spenders—who mostly were in the GOP side—did to the democratic process goes beyond Smith’s list. It deeply affected how the Republican Party chose their presidentiial nominee by suppressing moderates and instead lifting right wing extremists and boosting their agendas. It stifled debate throughout the campaign by monopolizing broadcast TV with mostly negative ads—eclipsing other races, particularly for state-level contests. And it raised barriers to future congressional compromises by fueling polarization and fears of real retribution from those not meeting loyalty tests.

“A lot of the smart money didn’t get a good return on its investment, but that’s not to say that it didn’t have an impact on the political system,” said Kathy Kiely, Managing Editor at the Sunlight Foundation, which analyzes campaign finance trends. “It has an impact.”

Sunlight’s reporters have noted that notevery GOP outside group fared poorly. “It makes it harder for people who are elected to reach consensus,” she said. “We published a report on what donors want,” Kiely said, saying Americans For Tax Reform—which demands all GOP candidates sign a no-new-taxes pledge—won in more than half the races where it spent money. “That goes against signals that [Republican Speaker of the House] John Boehner sent yesterday on a willingness to raise revenues [to end a fiscal cliff crisis].”  

“You can only make appeals [to voters] that you can finance,” Ferguson said. “You are forced to go to blocks of investors and only say what they are willing to finance.”

“How would it have differed,” Keily asked, referring to what the 2012 campaign might have been like without the super PACs and equally big spending political non-profits underwritten by unnamed individuals, trade groups and corporations. “What happens if you take out those voices? We don’t know. But it would be different.”

Ferguson said there were signs how the race’s contours would have changed without the big spenders—and not just in the GOP primary where Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive. He pointed to a report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal that recalled Romney spend most of his campaign cash to get the nomination and then faced a six-week gap raising money before resuming his TV advertising. Meanwhile, “the Obama people painted him black,” Ferguson said, suggesting voters’ first impressions mattered more than final ones in 2012.

Athough Democrats and political junkies were delighted with the way GOP candidates beat each other up in their presidential primaries, when that process was done and large slices of the electorate took a fresh look at Romney, the Obama’s campaign was able to shape voter’s first impressions. Conversely, there also came a point in the final stretch where voters reached a saturation point—or diminishing returns—where no matter how much the GOP spent on TV ads that it was not longer influential.

No matter how you look at big money’s role in 2012—from afar or from the trenches—it’s had, Ferguson said, a “permanent effect” on the democratic process. When he looks ahead he sees the U.S., from its political system to its economic system, devolving to what has become commonplace in Latin America: nations run by oligarchs.

“The only thing that can beat this kind of stuff is a mass movement,” he said. “This is an aspect of [broader economic] inequality. If you get to Latin America-style inequality, you’ll get Latin-American style politics.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).