Discover more from The Bulwark
The Super PACs Are Worthless. Donors Should Stop Torching Their Cash.
There are clear lessons from the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries that GOP funders haven’t learned.
SUPER PACS FOR SEVERAL GOP CANDIDATES challenging Donald Trump have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help fund efforts to displace him as the party’s nominee—and they have absolutely nothing to show for it.
No progress. No signs of life. No movement. Nada.
The impotence of the super PAC efforts is an all-the-more-inviting target for ridicule when you consider that this entire strategic approach was discredited in the 2016 and 2020 presidential races. (I can speak from firsthand Jeb! experience about the law of diminishing returns on super PAC dollars.)
In both cycles, the major parties nominated standard bearers with middling to poor fundraising and near-nonexistent organizational capabilities thanks to their brand positioning with voters and earned media momentum (Clyburn!).
And in both cycles, the parties rejected campaigns with well-capitalized super PACs and massive campaign teams as the moneyed candidates ran headfirst into the law of diminishing returns for presidential campaign spending targeting voters who have already heard enough and decided they aren’t interested in what they are being sold.
So this time around, you’d think that some of the richest men and women in the world and the smartest political strategists the GOP has to offer might have learned something from the hundreds of millions spent in the last two cycles with no tangible effect on the outcome. You’d think that they would at some point heed the business maxim about not throwing good money after bad. Right?
I’m here to tell you that they have not.
QUICK DETOUR INTO ANCIENT HISTORY: In 2000, George W. Bush ran a textbook beforetimes primary campaign using his unprecedented network of money men to essentially clear the GOP field. His fundraising numbers were so astonishing that members of the media gasped when he announced them at a press conference. But that was almost a quarter century ago. And it seems like most of the political svengalis are still stuck in a Bush-era frame.
Political dollars went a long way back in 2000, when, according to Pew, 56 percent of Americans watched their local TV news. That same year, 23 percent got news from this newfangled thing called The Internet with only 3 percent visiting partisan “online magazines like Slate.com or National Review Online.” That meant political campaigns could reach a huge chunk of voters through ads during the morning and evening news broadcasts, where they had a captive DVR-less audience with relatively few other inputs about the state of the campaign.
We could not have a more different information ecosystem going into 2024. Campaign content about the presidential race is being delivered in surround sound to voters every day. From Facebook to TikTok to sports radio shows that are mixed with redpilled punditry, the news environment is all-consuming. For the political partisans most likely to vote in primaries, there is now an entire universe of “news” outlets and social media accounts with massive followings unleashing a firehose of information with questionable veracity to voters through the phone in their pocket every second of the day.
Improve the veracity of the information coming into your phone. Sign up for a free or paid Bulwark subscription today.
That trend would call for a different campaign approach even if this primary didn’t feature one of the most famous people in the world, a person the electorate—you know, the one campaigns are charged with persuading—has deeply held pre-existing opinions about.
And yet, for some reason, in the face of that fact set, highly paid political strategists have decided that 30-second TV ads and paid door knockers are still what campaigns need to help their candidates win. And the rich people funding those strategies are signing off on it. This is either inertia-driven mass psychosis or billionaires being hoodwinked by a consulting class made up of very successful con artists.
To put a finer point on it, let’s take a look at how these PACs are spending their money.
Here’s an ad that Tim Scott’s PAC says they are airing in Iowa and New Hampshire as part of a $7.25 million buy.
“Have you seen him work a crowd?!”
Are you fucking kidding me with this? This is what the money is going to?!
I will grant that corny ads such as this can have some impact in primary campaigns for Congress where the voters aren’t as familiar with the candidates and might be persuaded to vote for a friendly-looking guy who promises to be a conservative.
But this is not one of those campaigns. It’s like using the playbook from a pee-wee football game to go up against Florida State.
Try to put yourself in the mind of a Donald Trump supporter. They have stuck with their man over multiple elections in the face of an assault on the Capitol, ridicule from elites, and, in many cases, shunning from their friends and families. They think he was the best president of their lifetime. And they get most of their news from websites that are one step short of a Trump-family Pravda.
Scott’s team thinks a 30-second TV ad with six people straight from Getty Images saying “Tim Scott is a conservative” is going to soften them up? I refuse to accept that this is a genuinely held belief, and if it is, somebody please send me some of whatever the fuck they are smoking.
Now let’s look at the expenditures of Never Back Down, the super PAC aligned with DeSantis. Mind you super PACs only have to report on their activities twice per year, so this tells us what they did before June 30. By that time Never Back Down had already shelled out nearly $34 million. That spending included:
$7 million on ads supporting DeSantis
$45k on ads criticizing Donald Trump
$29k on ads criticizing Nikki Haley
$4 million on grassroots canvassing
$1.2 million on mail
$1.5 million on polling
We can assume that those spending numbers have skyrocketed over the summer, because, even though Never Back Down had $97 million cash on hand on July 1, it is now begging donors for another $50 million injection so that it doesn’t run out of money:
“Now let me tell you a secret — don’t leak this,” the strategist, Jeff Roe, told the donors last Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by The New York Times. “We need to do this now. We’re making a move now.”
Then Mr. Roe made a bold sales pitch: “The day after Labor Day we’re launching and we need your help to stay up and go hard the rest of the way. We need 50 million bucks.”
With urgency in his voice, Mr. Roe told the donors he required much of the $50 million in the next month before the second G.O.P. debate on Sept. 27.
Might I suggest that instead of raising another $50 million, Never Back Down stop spending money on the things they have been footing the bill for thus far while their candidate crashes and burns in the polls?
What is all this “canvassing” getting them aside from embarrassing stories about “stoned” supporters acting stupid in people’s doorbell cameras? It’s sure not slowing the Trump juggernaut.
I DON’T IMAGINE there are many business settings in which a pitch with this nebulous, unproven ROI in the face of an entrenched dominant competitor would be accepted.
Imagine Hardee’s execs telling their investors that they need another $50 million that they will invest in paying 25-year-old stoners to knock on strangers’ doors and tell them that their burger tastes yummier than McDonald’s. Or the RC Cola marketing team telling the suits that they can displace Coke and Pepsi with $50 million in ads on terrestrial cable that say their soda is really tasty without mentioning the competitors. (Well, it’d be $42.5 million, actually, because the ad wizards are gonna take their 15 percent cut.)
They would be laughed out of the room because the premise is preposterous. But for some reason in presidential politics this kind of stuff continues to be funded.
HERE’S THE REALITY: If the Never Back Down PAC had spent every dime that has thus far gone to TV ads and canvassers on sculpting a giant golden idol alongside I-80 in central Iowa that depicts DeSantis kicking an immigrant child in the ass, there is no available evidence that their candidate would be worse off than he is today. Hell, he might even have gained a point or two with the MAGA base for such a lib-owning, Alpha maneuver.
There is a reason that the only candidate in the Republican primary who has seen an outside-the-margin-of-error increase in his polling since his campaign launched is Vivek Ramaswamy—the one guy who has no significant super PAC backing, reminds the anti-establishment GOP voters of that constantly during his stump speeches, and instead modeled his campaign on Trump’s (and Mayor Pete’s) 2020 media-focused approach rather than on strategies that worked in 1999.
Because in this day and age it is the attention economy and brand alignment with the customer that matter. The rules of the game for presidential politics have changed, and candidates who want to be successful in either party have to adapt.
This is not to say that TV ads and other traditional tactics are completely worthless in every instance. Nor does it mean that super PACs can’t make a difference in places on the margins by trying to peel off small percentages of swing voters or low-propensity voters. They can. Some of the more creative ones have been successful at doing so.
But that’s not at all what these campaign-approved PACs are trying to achieve. They are attempting to mass communicate to a highly informed, highly engaged partisan electorate and create movement at scale for their candidates. They are doing so amid a cyclone of content about their leading opponent with no plan to address it.
Sending paid door knockers and inside-the-box TV ads into that environment is just pissing into the storm.
The best investment that Republican billionaires considering whether to fund Haley or Scott or DeSantis or Pence could make at this stage is redirecting their resources to lower-ballot candidates or general-election efforts to stop Trump (a boy can dream). Or just pouring that money into their charitable causes du jour. Because what they are doing now ain’t working.
My hunch, though? I suspect the GOP donors and strategists behind these PACs will triple down on the exact same approach that has failed the last two times they tried it.
Trump might be the crazy one—but you know what they say about the definition of insanity.