Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson

Wealthy Republican donors like Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and some private corporations who pumped tens of millions into super PACs, may have walked away from defeat on Tuesday with a lesson – you cannot buy an election.

Americans decided to stay with President Barack Obama for four more years. However, it's not to say money did not have any influence on the election.

Thanks to a Supreme Court decision two years ago, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2012 election was the most expensive in the history of the United States, costing more than an estimated $6 billion. Thanks to that verdict, corporations and politically active organizations were able to spend an unlimited amount of money supporting or opposing a candidate.

“There was record amount of spending,” said Michael Wagner, an election and American politics expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s not much evidence candidates or interest groups can buy election with advertising. What’s difficult to figure out is all these super PACs could’ve have chosen people likely to win and seemed successful.”

But that wasn’t the case. Conservatives super PACs spent a lot this election cycle backing candidates who lost.

Adelson, a Republican, is the largest single donor in political history. He gave $53 million to various super PACs during this election cycle, with very little to show for it.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, or CRP, Adelson supported Newt Gingrich, who lost the GOP’s presidential nomination, and David Dewhurst, who lost his bid for a Senate seat. The GOP’s presidential nominee did go to Mitt Romney, who was backed by super PACs with funding from Adelson. The billionaire’s cash also supported other election losers such as Virginia’s George Allen and Florida’s Allen West, according to CRP.

Though conservatives were the bigger spenders, liberal super PACs and outside groups also made big investments.

On its website, CRP stated that Fred Eychaner, who owns Newsweb, was the top donor to liberal super PACs. He contributed $12 million and gave nearly $4 million to Majority PAC, supporting Democratic Senate campaigns.

Eychaner got more bang for his buck, as all of the candidates supported by Majority PAC were winners Tuesday.

“All of the candidates opposed by Majority PAC went on to lose their contests, with the notable exception of Jeff Flake – the Republican candidate for the open Arizona Senate seat who was the target of more than $2 million in negative ads from Majority PAC,” the website states.

Still, the question of what happened to the influence of money in elections cannot be avoided.

“Win or lose in the short run, the world of unrestricted contributions and unpredictable attacks has changed the nature of how campaigns will be waged,” said CRP's executive director Sheila Krumholz in a report. “[The election] results remind us once again that money’s no guarantee of victory, but the genie is out of the bottle. The pressure to raise huge sums and develop new and innovative ways of spending unlimited resources will continue to grow as a result of this experience.”

By CRP’s estimates, a reported $562 million was spent by outside donors in the presidential race with more than $290 million in outside spending opposing the President’s reelection. Outside groups spent $26.3 million supporting Obama. Outside spending opposing Romney was $97.6 million, and $61.8 million was spent to support his campaign, inclusive of primaries cash.

“It was surprising that money got less influence than we usually attribute to it in politics,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University. “It may be that there’s so much advertising going on that it cancelled it out.”

DeHaven-Smith believes these advertisements were targeted at the undecided, or at people deeply interested in politics, because many don’t really pay attention to them.

“Most people already had their minds made up so if something came on and they didn’t agree, they would turn it off,” he said. “Those who vote regularly, they already have their minds made up.”

The professor also said it could be that the simplicity of the Obama campaign ads worked in his favor, as opposed to the complex issues Romney sought to deal with in his advertisements.

Sesame Street may not have liked Obama’s “Big Bird” ad, but it was catchy. The campaign’s “First Time” ad, starring Lena Dunham, targeted women voters, and while it caused a stir among conservatives, it likely got the job done, amid a strong debate this year about women’s reproductive rights.

“Romney’s ads were complicated, for example about jobs going overseas, you have to know a lot about the bailout stuff [to really understand],” deHaven-Smith said. “The voters who are persuaded are the ones not thinking in a very sophisticated way, or are not sophisticated politically."

“'Binders full of women' went viral,” he added, referring to a comment made by Romney during the second debate. “You would think that’s a silly thing but people paid attention to that and it shows that a lot of people politically are shallow in their thinking. The bulk of the people pay little attention to politics. Ask people about trade policy or balance of payments – they don't know.”

DeHaven-Smith said people then tend to look at those they trust.

Enter former President Bill Clinton, who spent much of his time campaigning with and for Obama, explaining where the nation has been and then how Obama planned to move forward. Obama even joked in New Hampshire that Clinton should be appointed “secretary of explaining stuff.”

“Most of the electorate depend on what a trusted leader says,” deHaven-Smith said. “Clinton did explain a lot in his convention speech.”

Keeping The Race Close

But whether Obama’s win was a result of voters having already chosen, or that ads just didn’t matter, Wagner said the money spent did do something.

“Karl Rove’s Crossroads [organizations], didn't back any winners. For Adelson there was no return in terms of victory,” he said. “But it’s possible the money kept the race closer than otherwise could have been. It’s cold comfort. Money has a peculiar relationship with election. Incumbents have to spend more to keep seats, but competitors are spending more.”

Rove’s organizations spent more than $300 million on Republican candidates this election. The Huffington Post describes his groups, American Crossroads super PAC, and Crossroads GPS, a social welfare nonprofit, as “the largest single outside force of the 2012 election.”

“The PACS were not supporting people likely to get creamed, but those only about three points behind,” Wagner said. “They were hoping negative ads would have helped. We can’t say negative ads didn’t work. It might have inspired people to go out and vote and even informed about the opponents.

“It certainly didn’t have the effect that those spending the money wanted to have for their candidates – that’s for them to win,” he added. “Negative ads signal to voters the race is important, that someone is spending to defeat your candidate.”