So I open up my dead-tree edition of The New York Times today, and see an article entitled "Liberal Donors' Plan Worries Top Democrats," about how the fact that some rich Democratic donors have decided to put their money into grassroots organizing instead of the kind of super PAC Republicans have, where nearly every penny goes to fund television ads, has got some Democrats fuming. The article quotes exactly one complainer, Harry Reid's chief of staff, who says, "Why go off and build a redundant grass-roots and get-out-the-vote organization that the Obama campaign is clearly invested in?...Why would they rule out this tried-and-true medium?" The Republicans will be investing so much on TV, and Democrats will be outgunned!
Right below that story, on the same page of the Times, is a profile of Obama campaign ad guru Jim Margolis, discussing all the groovy ads he's going to create for the Obama campaign to destroy Mitt Romney with. Which is a good reminder that Democrats fretting about their outside money should chill out. They need to remember that there will be no shortage of ads on the air eviscerating Romney and making the case for Obama's re-election.
They also should keep in mind that most of the money the Republican super PACs spend is going to be wasted. Television advertising has its greatest impact in a certain kind of environment: when the target of the ads is not well known, and when one side can totally overwhelm the other side. Neither of those things will be true this fall. President Obama, you may remember, has been around for a while. People are already pretty clear about their feelings about him. It isn't as though some brilliant TV ad Republicans come up with is going to make millions of Americans spew out their dinners and shout, "What?!? He said that?!? I'm sure not voting for that guy!"
The chances that Democrats will be able to come up with an ad that makes people say that about Mitt Romney are significantly higher, because he's far less known even after the primaries, and because there's just so much rich ground to attack him on. Which points to an irony: Romney is the guy who could really use to have his rich friends invest a couple of hundred million dollars in grassroots organization, but they will be spending all their money on ads, while Obama might—might—be able to come up with a killer ad, but his rich friends will be investing their money in grassroots organizing.
That said, there really is almost nothing to worry about on this score if you're a Democrat. As I said, the persuasiveness of the message aside, ads only make a large difference if you can dramatically outspend your opponent. The combination of the Romney campaign and the pro-Romney super PACs may outspend the Obama campaign on the air, but if they do, it won't be by much. And if the Obama campaign does come up with that killer ad, this year's "Daisy" or "Morning in America" or "Revolving Door," it'll have its effect by being played and replayed on cable and network news, garnering free airtime. The fact that a Democratic super PAC could have put some more money behind it (or behind their own similar version of it) will make no difference.
Ads are sexy and relatively easy to create, which is a large part of the reason the Republican super PACs have chosen to invest all their money on them. You can cash a check from a donor and a week later show him the ad his money bought and assure him it'll help swing the election. Grassroots organizing is less glamorous and more difficult and time-consuming. But when it's done right, it makes a difference, even at times when ads can't. So if anyone tells you that the fact that George Soros isn't funding a bunch of pro-Obama ads means the president's re-election is in doubt, feel free to tell them to chill out.