Super PAC Spending: Even with an Obama Win, Big Money Still Bought the Presidential Election


If you haven't heard, Barack Obama will be president for another four years. Pundits on the left and in the center generally rejoiced when the votes were in. Not only was this a victory for the candidate who seemed more ingenuous, more experienced, and more moderate — it was a victory over big money. These optimists assert that the billions of dollars spent by business interests on this election cycle were "a waste of money." 

Would that it were so. The massive sums of money elites poured into this election not only warped the already twisted narrative of American politics, it also proved that political spending is an effective way to influence elections. 

The first thing we need to understand is that hard math proves that the Mitt Romney's political platform was anathema to American voters. Let's look at some of Romney's key positions. 

Tax Reform

As we've covered ad nausium, Romney's tax plan didn't add up. However, let's take his word that he wouldn't lower the share of the tax burden covered by the wealthy. Even so, he adamantly refused to raise taxes on the wealthy. However, 58% of Americans — a clear majority — don't believe that the wealthiest pay their fair share in taxes, and support raising taxes on top earners.

Military Spending

Romney attacked President Obama relentlessly on the issue of defense cuts. Romney claimed that Obama would allow the U.S. military to lose its edge, and Romney himself supported increasing military spending by $2 trillion. But when voters are showed the share of military spending in the national budget, they support slashing it by 18% on average. 


Republicans made repealing Obamacare a centerpiece of their campaign. The negative spin, largely paid for by interest groups who perceive threats to their profits, has made measuring public sentiment about Obamacare a murky affair. However, when Americans are asked about the provisions of Obamacare, they view these provisions quite favorably. For example, 72% of respondents support requiring large and medium-sized businesses to provide health care to their employees, and a whopping 82% support blocking insurance companies from screening applicants with pre-existing conditions. 

By gaping margins, we find, the public opposes Romney's agenda of preserving tax breaks for the rich, increasing military spending, and undoing health care reform. So why did he only lose the race by a razor-thin 3%? To find out, we must follow the money. 

Republicans raised about $100 million more than Democrats this election cycle. Significantly, Republicans had an even stronger edge in outside spending — semi-anonymous spending by corporate interest groups, business tycoons, and others. Of the five biggest Super PACs, four supported Romney and attacked Obama. Outside spending favored Romney by about $240 million.

How can we be sure that money is the reason why so many voters abandoned their true principles and interests to support Willard Mitt Romney last week? It's a difficult task. Luckily, academic researchers have done the work for me. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist at UMass Boston (formerly of MIT), explains this all in his book on the investment theory of party competition. Ferguson finds first that, on balance, the biggest spender before an election wins. More significantly, he finds that different elite business interests support the Democrats and Republicans. On issues where these business factions have common interests, there is no competition. The party lines are identical. You might have noticed Obama and Romney agreeing an awful lot, especially in the third presidential debate. Usually, however, these agreements are tacit. 

In a similar vein, Larry M. Bartels of Princeton has looked at how U.S. senators respond to the preferences of poor, middle class, and rich constituents, respectively. According to his research, elected officials respond most to the desires of the rich, who are also the biggest campaign contributors. There is a slight correlation between the wishes of the middle class (who are minor donors) and the positions of the senators. Whatever the poor prefer, senators are more likely to do the opposite. 

Obama may have won in 2012, but at what cost? Despite promises to the contrary, Obama accepted Super PAC help after seeing the deluge of money flowing into pro-Romney coffers. Obama, always a pro-business politician, is now even more beholden to his financial backers. And after Romney's defeat, the supporters of his wildly unpopular positions might concede defeat— or they might be marveling at how close all that money got Romney to office, and decide to double down next time. No matter who wins, the wealthy and the corporations will always get a good return on their investments. That's their job.