Last Night’s Loser: Big Money

From a PR perspective, we’ve already established the winners of last night’s election: no-frills, on-brand messaging and basic math. The loser, in our humble opinion, was big money.

After the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, quite a few observers began to freak out over the growing power wielded by well-funded Super PACs and advocacy groups.

These fears may well be justified; 2012 was the most expensive election in history, with spending on presidential and congressional campaigns amounting to approximately $6 billion, and we can’t quite see that as a positive thing. Still, this year’s contests brought encouraging signs hinting at the fact that “a whole lot of money” just isn’t enough to win an election in this country today.

Take, for example, the unsuccessful Connecticut Senate campaign of former WWE head Linda McMahon. Over three years and two different races, the wrestling executive spent $100 million of her own money, easily breaking all records and providing a nice boost to the Connecticut economy. Yet Chris Murphy defeated McMahon by a healthy margin last night despite the fact that she spent twice as much as he did while eschewing divisive social issues to run as a moderate business reformer.

What does this tell us?

In a way, McMahon’s race reflected a presidential contest in which Mitt Romney ultimately held a significant fundraising advantage over Barack Obama (who was already a very well-financed incumbent). It also very closely resembled the 2010 big money losses of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, both of whom were highly competent former executives with huge campaign war chests.

The key point? Post-election analysis now finds that all those millions spent by wealthy individuals and independent advocacy groups (which basically amount to temporary PR firms) made very little difference in the end. Did the money generate a lot of headlines? Yes. Did it lead to a lot of “death of democracy” pontification? Oh yeah. But it didn’t do much to sway the minds of American voters–and we don’t think we’re alone in believing this to be a good thing.

This isn’t a universal conclusion, by the way. Elizabeth Warren beat Massachusetts incumbent Scott Brown in one of this year’s costliest senate races, and she did so–at least in part–by outspending him.

Will “big money” continue to play a formative role in American politics? Of course. A candidate or ballot initiative that lacks a baseline level of funding has no feasible path to victory, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Still, most of the best-backed candidates lost last night just like they did in 2010—and we have a feeling that the political PR teams of the future will view the influence of massive cash dumps and ad buys with suspicion. At least we hope so.