Jonathan Chait wonders why the expected campaign finance imbalance between the Presidential candidates hasn’t panned out. It turns out that Obama has out-advertised Romney in the swing states, which is not quite the same as outspending him. One of the reasons is a little-known campaign finance law which mandates that political campaigns get the lowest unit rate for advertising, while outside groups cannot command the same cheap rates. The result is that the same 30-second block of airtime can cost 6 times more when a SuperPAC buys it than when the Obama campaign purchases it. And the Republican side is more heavily weighted toward outside groups than Mitt Romney specifically. Even in the Romney-versus-Obama campaign money race, the GOP side has delivered more money through the RNC and the joint “Victory Fund,” meaning that Obama has more money that can stretch for him with the low ad rates.
In one Ohio ad buy slated to run just before the election, for example, Obama is paying $125 for a spot that is costing a conservative super PAC $900 [...]
The result is that Romney and his allies may have fewer resources than it appears, since much of what they do from here will be more expensive. The lack of direct control by Romney also raises the possibility, however remote, that his allies could abandon him if his chances continue to fade, as happened to Robert J. Dole in October 1996, when the party shifted its efforts to congressional races.
Funny how campaign finance is coming back to bite the independent expenditure campaigns in the rear. But this only works when you have a free spending candidate on the other side. That’s usually not the case in downballot races, where resources are more constrained. A Democratic House candidate up against a SuperPAC onslaught won’t fare as well as a well-heeled Obama campaign.
This is why the 2010 election swung so heavily to the right with the benefit of SuperPACs and outside groups. Even if they spent 6 times as much for the same ad time, their opponents were outspent 30-1. And because the ad time wasn’t as cherished, the variance in ad rates was not as extreme; local stations couldn’t charge as much in a midterm as they do in a Presidential election.
I think the split you’ll see in coming years is that SuperPACs and outside groups will be more effective at choosing a Congress than choosing a President, and more effective in an off-year election than a Presidential election. This doesn’t mean that money is somehow meaningless overall, or that the Citizens United dog “didn’t bark.” Take a look at your House of Representatives if you want to be disabused of that notion.