Sabato's Crystal Ball

Buying a Presidential Election? It’s Not as Easy as You Think

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist May 31st, 2012

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It looks like it’s going to be another tough season for long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs. Two months into the 2012 baseball season, the Cubs are mired in last place in the National League’s Central Division with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball. But the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs, billionaire investor Joe Ricketts, has had more on his mind lately than the Cubs’ problems. It seems that he’s been busy with another major project — stopping Barack Obama from winning a second term in the White House.

A few weeks ago it was revealed that Ricketts, who made a fortune as the founder of the online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, was preparing to spend $10 million on an advertising campaign reminding voters in battleground states about Obama’s relationship with fiery Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. After stories about the proposed ad campaign appeared in the media, it was almost universally panned by political commentators on the right as well as the left, and Ricketts announced that he would not be funding it. But that didn’t mean that he was giving up on his goal of defeating President Obama.

It turns out that Ricketts is providing major financial support for another anti-Obama venture. This time it’s a film being made by the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, attacking the president for an anti-colonial worldview that he supposedly inherited from his Kenyan father.

Like the Jeremiah Wright ad campaign, D’Souza’s line of attack has been criticized as inaccurate, misleading and downright silly by prominent conservative commentators, including the Washington Post’s George Will. One sign of just how little support there is for D’Souza’s claims in mainstream conservative circles is the fact that the only candidate to make the Obama as anti-colonial Kenyan claim during the Republican primary campaign was Newt Gingrich.

One might simply dismiss Joe Ricketts’ behavior as the quixotic quest of a lone wolf with more money than he knows what to do with. But Ricketts’ actions are far from unique. He is one of a small but growing group of conservative billionaires who have taken advantage of lax campaign finance rules reinforced by recent Supreme Court decisions to pour millions of dollars into the 2012 presidential campaign. The Democrats have their own wealthy sugar daddies, of course, but there are fewer of them and, so far at least, they have been much less willing to open their wallets to help reelect the president.

During the recent Republican primary campaign, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s floundering campaign afloat for several months by donating tens of millions of dollars to a pro-Gingrich Super PAC. Another billionaire, financial investor Foster Friess, gave several million dollars to a SuperPAC supporting Rick Santorum, helping the former Pennsylvania senator emerge as Mitt Romney’s main challenger for the GOP nomination. And of course, Romney himself benefited from millions of dollars donated to his own SuperPAC, much of it from a handful of extremely wealthy supporters.

In the end, the Republican contest turned out the way most political experts expected it to from the beginning: The candidate with the broadest support from Republican voters and the most endorsements by GOP officeholders, Mitt Romney, locked up the nomination well before the end of the primaries. All of the millions of dollars spent by billionaire-funded SuperPACS, most on negative ads attacking other Republican candidates, probably had little impact on the final outcome.

So what can we expect from all of the spending by SuperPACs and their billionaire donors in the general election? No doubt much of it will be wasted on negative advertising campaigns and propaganda like the aborted Jeremiah Wright ads or the Obama as anti-colonial Kenyan film. Such messages appeal mainly to a small group of conservatives who don’t need to be convinced to vote against Barack Obama.

But not all of those running these SuperPACs are political amateurs or ideologues. Republican campaign guru Karl Rove has his own Super PAC that has raised millions of dollars from a relatively small number of wealthy conservative donors. Rove has already launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign in a number of swing states attacking the President’s economic record by highlighting the continued suffering of ordinary Americans more than three years after Obama took office.

Rove’s message is much more likely to resonate with swing voters in key battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. But despite the clever messaging, the Rove Super PAC’s anti-Obama campaign is also likely to have little or no impact on the outcome of the election. That’s because the tens of millions of dollars that they are spending on television ads in the swing states is coming on top of hundreds of millions of dollars already being spent on TV ads in these states by the candidates themselves, party organizations, labor unions, liberal and conservative organizations and wealthy individuals.

The airwaves in the eight or 10 states that will decide the outcome of the 2012 presidential election will soon be saturated with ads supporting and opposing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, all aimed at persuading a small group of undecided voters — less than 10%, according to most recent polls.

These undecided voters are much less interested in the presidential election than those who have already chosen sides. When the ads come on, they generally ignore them. Moreover, undecided voters are not stupid, and they’re generally skeptical about the messages that they see on TV. As a result, the net impact of all of this advertising is likely to be minimal.

Research by political scientists and evidence from 2012 polls in the battleground states suggests that the parties and candidates would do better to focus their efforts in these states on mobilizing their supporters rather than trying to persuade uncommitted voters. But I’ll have more to say about that in my next article.

Emory University professor and Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz takes an in-depth look at the seemingly irreconcilable divide between Republicans and Democrats in his new book, The Polarized Public? Why American Government is So Dysfunctional. Abramowitz argues that bipartisanship remains elusive, not because of politicians in Washington, but because of the American public and its fixation on party membership and loyalty. Now available on Amazon, click here to get your copy today.