Don't Worry about the Super PACs

Writing for the New York Times, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg report that American Crossroads—the largest of the Republican super PACs—will soon begin its advertising blitz against President Obama:

With an anticipated bank account of more than $200 million, officials at American Crossroads said they would probably begin their campaign this month. But they said they would focus the bulk of the first phase from May through July, which they believe is a critical period for making an impression on voters, before summer vacations and the party conventions take place.

Steven J. Law, the group’s leader, said the ads would address the challenge of unseating a president who polls show is viewed favorably even though many people disapprove of his handling of the economy. Basically, Mr. Law said, “how to dislodge voters from him.”

Independent of a declining economy, or any other disaster, I have my doubts about whether this would be effective. President Obama is already well-defined in the minds of voters, and outside of a small handful, most people have thoughts about the president and his administration. For the plurality of voters on both sides, a few well-placed television ads won’t do much to change their opinions, and for voters who sit on the margins, economic performance will determine their vote.

The other fact to keep in mind is the fact that American Crossroads will have to compete for mindshare with the Obama campaign and Democratic groups. Here’s the thing to keep in mind about presidential elections: money doesn’t matter that much. Sure, an overwhelming advantage in one direction or the other is significant. But when both sides are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the marginal effect of a few million here or there is small. Indeed, how we judge the effectiveness of spending—and super PACs, in particular—will depend on who wins the election. If Romney wins, we will credit outside spending, even if it’s effect was small. Vice versa, if Obama wins, we’ll talk about the declining utility of campaign sending.

In all likelihood, this American Crossroads advertising campaign will be nullified by comparable action on part of the Obama campaign, and if it isn’t, there’s still the fact that, as the president, Obama is in the best position possible to define himself.

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