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The Super PAC Flameout

Why Sheldon Adelson just flushed $40 million down the drain.

When the Supreme Court issued the Citizens United ruling, panicked Democrats began to write their own obituary. How could they possibly compete against the seemingly infinite army of billionaire conservatives like Sheldon Adelson and their new super PACs?

As it turns out, Democrats can compete just fine—at least for now. Adelson’s donations have totaled at least $40 million so far this year, and Mitt Romney has close ties to the world of finance. But President Obama has still raised more in the last two months than all the conservative super PACs combined raised through August. And even though GOP-aligned super PACs out-raised their Democratic-leaning counterparts by more than $150 million, super PACs account for just 19 percent of total fund-raising by the parties, candidates, and super PACs. In the end, Republicans only managed a 2 percent total money edge over Democrats.

Between the convention and the end of September, Team Obama out-advertised Team Romney by 30 percent, in part because federal law grants campaigns lower ad rates. Meanwhile, the underfunded Democratic super PAC Priorities USA arguably played the largest role in the presidential contest by defining Romney—in key battleground states like Ohio—as an out-of-touch millionaire bent on annihilating the middle class. The lesson may be that the quality of the message is as important as the quantity, and a strong cohesive message is difficult when federal regulations prohibit coordination between super PACs and campaigns.

This isn’t to say that super PACs aren’t playing a role: They spent millions in critical Senate battlegrounds, they helped Romney power his way through the primaries, and they kept him alive during the early summer when his coffers were depleted. But the super PACs have spread their dollars across dozens of contests, preventing them from playing a decisive role at the top of the ticket. (These modest totals could have a bigger impact in congressional races.) While unlimited donations to super PACs might one day allow the super-rich to flood the airwaves with an overwhelming barrage of advertisements against a Democrat, that day has yet to arrive. Moreover, Obama is already a known quantity, which makes him harder to attack. But rich Republicans, fear not: When Adelson and company are not running against a sitting president, Democrats might find themselves buried in cash—and not in a good way.

Nate Cohn is a staff writer at The New Republic. For more election coverage, check out Nate Cohn’s blog, Electionate. This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Stuck at the Crossroads.”