January 21, 2016
Jeb Bush raised a crap ton of PAC money. Jeb Bush saw his campaign crap out. Ergo, PAC money can only go so far. Rick Perry had a respectable amount of PAC money, but couldn’t raise any campaign money. That proved you still need some of your own funds to run, something Scott Walker’s exit confirmed when his campaign well ran dry before his PAC did.
None of those events would convince you the money was a negative, just not the positive many expected. After all, Ted Cruz has raised more PAC scratch than anyone except Jeb and Hillary, and he’s doing just fine. We don’t know if he’ll hang on and win Iowa, but he’s definitely exceeding original expectations.
However, he also hasn’t used very much of that money yet. With his Iowa effort dependent on grass roots support and high-profile endorsements, he’s saving the cash stockpile for South Carolina and March 1, so for now, we actually need to include him with those who have not blanketed the airwaves with PAC money.
When Jeb! started running ads by the bucketful in Iowa and New Hampshire in an attempt to halt his skid, only to see support drop even further, my first thought was Jeb is just a bad product. They ran plenty of Edsel and New Coke ads too (insert less dated reference of your choosing).
Bush was a bad debater (now improved to adequate), a shaky interviewee, somnambulant stump speaker (he’s improved there too, but there’s a reason Trump’s low energy crack stuck), with the wrong last name and a couple counts of conservative apostasy. You could argue the PAC wasn’t at fault, it just wasn’t the solution.
John Kasich ran a bunch of PAC ads in New Hampshire (technically, he didn’t run them, nor did the others, but….). At first, they helped, moving him from a rounding error to 8-10% relatively quickly. That was the introductory phase, something he needed, as he entered the contest with minimal name recognition.
The ads (in various forms) persisted through the fall. Kasich’s numbers? Stagnant to declining until very recently. Of late, the Granite State airwaves are so full, his ads are barely noticeable. I can’t prove that since his first few weeks these ads have actually hurt him, but the circumstantial evidence points in that direction.
As we know, Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a super PAC (or even a backpack). Hillary does. Hers runs ads. More lately than before. She’s sinking, not rising. Again, can’t prove the PAC is doing her in, but the candidate with an active one is underperforming, the opponent without one is exceeding expectations.
Next to Jeb, the most active GOP PAC user is Marco Rubio. He held his fire for months, but as the voting is approaching, Marco’s affiliate is getting busy. His numbers, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, are now a little lower than when the PAC started spending in large amounts.
The most successful candidate of all, the one who has controlled the narrative for months and done better than all but his biggest fans could have imagined, one Donald J. Trump, does not have a PAC. He may not get elected, he may not get nominated, he may not win Iowa, he may not win a single state. Nobody, I mean nobody could have imagined he would pull 48% in a legit Florida poll in mid January.
I might not have convinced you, but I have convinced myself that PACs are detrimental, at least as long as they are a major part of a candidate’s arsenal (the exception that allows us to include Cruz in the argument). The question is why? I have a few thoughts on this.
The ads aren’t all that interesting.
How do you run a truly interesting PAC ad? You’ve received money from large donors who support your candidate. You’re legally barred from running the ad content past that candidate. The campaigns have come up with a bunch of ways to send signals to their PACs and receive them back, but you can’t do 1992 Clinton War Room-style collaboration.
As a result, the content is boring and derivative. That’s never a good idea, but in the age of the DVR, it’s deadly. LBJ’s “daisy” ad, run only once in 1964 against Barry Goldwater, likely the most famous ad in the history of presidential politics, would not get approved by a PAC.
Veteran political pros run these PACs and their media departments. Jeb’s Right to Rise effort is helmed by Mike Murphy, a veteran establishment GOP strategist. The daisy ad was created at the maverick Madison Avenue agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (DDB), the same shop responsible for making the Volkswagen Bug a hit in America.
You aren’t going to let untested (in politics), bold, daring ad people run the media at your (technically) hands-off PAC. Investors aren’t giving millions to take chances, especially with candidates like Jeb and Hillary. Much of Rubio’s recent largesse comes from donors who would have supported Jeb if he had done better.
Organic and flexible is better.
If you commit to a large TV campaign, you need to block out the time way in advance, especially in the early voting states where there’s limited availability in the small group of TV markets. Due to the vagaries of campaign finance law, PACs pay a much higher rate than individual campaigns.
If you’ve blocked out ad space weeks ahead. If you’ve spent a ton of money for it. If the above limitations are also true, this is the worst of all worlds. Uninteresting ads, at times of the campaign that may not make the most sense, often on national cable shows where you can’t target to specific audiences, makes for a weak effort.
Compare this to the Sanders campaign, which has spent plenty of money in the past several weeks, all on ads produced under the auspices of the campaign, most for local audiences. With plenty of money, and access to the lower rate, they can take more chances and create less packaged-feeling spots.
Trump is barely even advertising. He’s transcended all of this with his massive free media campaign. This allows him to shift whenever he wants, however he wants, whenever he wants. Why worry about PAC ads when you can appear on each network every day? This isn’t something other candidates can easily replicate, but it’s damn effective.
Destroys candidate authenticity/outsider credibility.
Jeb! was already suffering from an insider name in an outsider year. Running tons of traditionally packaged spots furthered this impression. While Right to Rise is busy trying to keep Rubio flat on the ground these days, they spent the majority of their early budget building up Jeb.
Without the ability to improvise, led by a veteran strategist, they produced exactly the ad product to give the most lethal possible message. Lethal to Jeb that is. Even when they slam Rubio, the spots look like slightly updated versions of traditional hit ads.
Not all of the PAC ads are bad. Rubio’s team has a new Canadian Cruz spot that’s decently clever, tying his birthplace to his VAT tax proposal. If you produce enough pieces, a few are going to work out ok. However, for each of those, there are several pro-Marco spots that look exactly like any other “here’s my great candidate” ad from the past couple generations.
If you’re wondering why Rubio, originally endorsed by Sarah Palin (in his 2010 Senate primary) and supported by the Florida Tea Party is now stuck in the establishment lane, look no further than his own advertising, which is reinforcing the image every hour on the hour in Iowa, New Hampshire, and on Fox News.
You don’t see Trump ads like this.
False sense of security.
Traditionally candidates with more financial resources do better. It’s not an end in itself, but a positive indicator for sure. With the notable exceptions of Cruz and the spectacularly inefficient Ben Carson (who spent between 70 cents and a buck twenty for each dollar he raised), PAC candidates did very little to build a large individual donor base.
Even a candidate like Rand Paul, son of the big grass roots fundraiser of 2012, was unable to break out of the trap. His PACs are modestly funded compared to the others, but he has a somewhat similar breakdown between PAC and direct money as Bush and Rubio.
Candidates with a larger percentage of their money coming from individual small donors are generally more active in social media and provide more streams of voter and volunteer interaction. It both suits the way people absorb information in 2016 and helps with the authenticity battle.
I’ll confess to having skipped rigid empirical analysis here. At some point, somebody (maybe even me) should actually comb through data on the various ad buys and other spending of the PACs and campaigns to make sure I was accurate enough. The above content squares with my understanding of what’s going on right now and sounds right at a gut level, but could stand a fact check or three.
The opportunity to say this now before it’s conventional wisdom outweighed the chance of a few errors. Even if this is only mostly right, it’s still a big deal, and important to realize now instead of later. I really, really don’t think it’s mostly wrong.