With final receipts tallied, spending on the 2012 federal elections has topped $6 billion, making it the most expensive election in the history of the world -- and absent reform, election spending is certain to escalate in coming cycles, despite much of the money spent in 2012 failing to sway election outcomes.
Despite Losses, Spending Expected to Accelerate
The U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC opened the door to much of the unlimited fundraising and spending that marked the 2012 elections. That decision directly led to the rise of Super PACs, which are responsible for around half of all reported spending, and are largely funded by just a handful of donors -- 59 percent of the reported $834 million raised by Super PACs in 2011 came from just 156 people and organizations giving more than $1 million each.
Much of the money spent failed to result in the wealthy donor's desired outcome. Given these losses, the nation's billionaires and millionaires might not be expected to pour in the same amount over coming election cycles. But reports suggest they will anyway.
Spending by GOP-aligned Super PACs and nonprofits have been widely described as a "bust" that had "little impact" on election outcomes, and have been widely ridiculed for achieving an extremely low return on the dollars spent: Karl Rove's American Crossroads, for example, spent almost $105 million on the 2012 election cycle, but only 1.29 percent of that money was spent on elections where the group's preferred candidate won.
"Congrats to @KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle," Donald Trump tweeted.
Despite that low return on investment, many of the wealthy donors who bankrolled Republican Super PACs and dark money nonprofits are pledging to spend the same or more next election.
Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam poured a total of $150 million into Super PACs and dark money nonprofits, including almost $40 million to Rove's American Crossroads and $10 million to the Romney-affiliated Restore Our Future in just the final weeks of the election cycle. He also gave $50 million to right-wing dark money nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors, including the David Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity and Rove's Crossroads GPS.
Most of that $150 million backed losing candidates. Nonetheless, he plans to "double" his political spending in coming cycles: "I'll spend that much and more," he told the Wall Street Journal.
Other big donors also plan to repeat their spending patterns. Foster Friess, for example, whose millions helped buoy Rick Santorum's presidential bid, has also pledged to continue spending, but will direct money towards grassroots organizing instead of funding TV ads.
On the Democratic side, many of that party's wealthiest supporters initially expressed reluctance about joining the post-Citizens United unrestricted money war, but justified big checks to Super PACs as a necessary evil to ward off a Romney victory and an even more lawless campaign finance landscape. But Democrat-aligned Super PACs are proving not to be a one-time "necessary evil." Democrats were successful in 2012 in part because the campaign apparatus utilized well-funded outside money groups better than Republicans -- and the party apparently doesn't plan on changing its winning strategy.
Democratic Party leaders and strategists are moving seamlessly into Super PAC fundraising for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, despite an official party platform that insists President Obama and Democrats "support campaign finance reform" and are "fighting to reduce the influence of money in politics."
Ending Political Corruption in Washington Top Issue for Voters; Low Priority for Lawmakers
Adelson, for one, apparently recognizes that his political spending can pay off, even if he doesn't always win elections. He told the Wall Street Journal he has many friends in Washington, "but the reasons aren't my good looks and charm. It's my "pocket personality" -- referring to his donations.
"The larger issue is the ability to buy influence over government policies, and that's operating in full force regardless of the outcomes of particular races," said Fred Wertheimer of campaign finance reform group Democracy 21.
In July, Gallup conducted a poll that found that the number two issue on the vast majority of voters' minds -- after jobs -- was ending political corruption in Washington. 87 percent of voters ranked the issue as "extremely / very important," putting it higher than inside-the-beltway priorities like reducing the deficit and cutting entitlement programs.
A variety of legislative proposals and fixes have been offered to help limit the influence of money in politics. But absent reform, election spending will almost certainly accelerate.