WASHINGTON, March 31, 2015 — In announcing his retirement after his current term ends, Senator Harry Reid mentioned a desire to avoid “soak[ing] up” money that could be spent supporting other Democratic candidates. It was a nod to the increasing role of outside groups in campaigns: Each election cycle sees millions of dollars spent by groups that are not directly associated with candidates.
But big spending has not been synonymous with effective spending. The outside organizations who want to make an impact in 2016 will need a new playbook.
So-called super PACs, independent expenditure committees with no donation or spending limits, spent nearly $350 million during the 2014 election cycle and over $600 million in 2012. Much of that money was used for broadcast advertising on television and radio.
Much of this outside spending came in the final months of the previous two cycles, with the idea of fueling a final push to the finish line. Surely, the late air support helps, but history suggests the strategy is incomplete. In 2012, the two top-spending super PACs (nearly $250 million combined) were Restore our Future and American Crossroads, both allies of failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In 2014, the ironically named and Democratically aligned Senate Majority PAC and House Majority PAC spent over $76 million and wound up with minorities in both chambers of Congress.
Super PACs and other avenues that allow for large sums of money in the campaign process raise the hackles of campaign finance hawks, but the twist in the money-in-politics narrative is that top spenders haven’t seen results so far.
Organizations who want to impact 2016 races on all levels will need to be more creative than their ancestors. There are limits to what late spending on paid media can do. In both 2012 and 2014, winning candidates identified their supporters early and used late messages to drive participation. Late ads may have pushed up turnout, but they didn’t change minds – especially in 2012.
The big question for either will be: Which voters will each campaign need in 2016? And what will motivate them to vote? Super PACs can start answering those questions now. And there are 50 labs available to help them figure it out: State-by-state issue battles provide tremendous opportunities to organize, test messages and identify voters.
For a fraction of what they might spend in ad buys, political organizations can run impactful issue campaigns to drive constituent communication — via emails, letters, phone calls and office visits — with state legislators or other government officials. By tracking participation, smart operatives can figure out which issues and messages resonate better. This information can also help model voters and identify potential volunteers and donors.
Best of all, the information gleaned from these efforts would be based not on expressed opinions, but on actions taken. For example, a citizen might tell a campaign volunteer he supports lower taxes, but agreeing to contact an elected official and ask her to oppose a tax hike displays an even greater level of commitment.
Using this data along with other research efforts would permit super PACs to fine-tune their media spends. As consumers abandon broadcast and even cable television, reaching audiences through other channels — such as online or streaming video ads – will become critical. Good data will allow these paid media programs to be targeted and efficient – and ultimately, better at helping get more people to the polls.
The biggest outside groups of the two previous campaign cycles may not have been successful, but it was not for lack of spending. Organizations seeking to impact future campaigns will need to learn from these mistakes. Big spending alone will not be enough — smart money tends to trump big money.