The success of this gambit ultimately will be judged against the outcome, not only of the election in terms of whether Romney wins or loses, but of a Romney administration's ability to marshal support from various factions of the GOP. Still, a few things already can be said about the crater these four groups have blown into America's political terrain.
First, they provided invaluable air cover for a largely absent Republican nominee during the first five months of the race. Between April and August, Romney had fewer resources to devote to advertising. To the extent that the race "broke" temporarily for President Barack Obama, it only happened in September. By keeping the heat on Obama and amplifying every drag on the country's slow-healing economy, these groups kept the race tight for four months and, for the most part, continue to boost Romney today. Americans for Prosperity did its heavy lifting for Romney back in August and early September; the other three are still on the air in a big way.
Second, these groups made the tone of the race even more negative and the messaging even more repetitive. As of October 19, the three biggest advertisers in the presidential race in terms of ad occurrences were the Obama campaign (455,733), the four Republican groups combined (219,510), and the Romney campaign (167,900), in that order. Obama's spot count was 81% negative, 19% positive -- meaning that 81% of his spots contained critical mentions of Romney. Romney's was 86% negative, 14% positive -- meaning that 86% of his spots contained critical mentions of Obama. The four groups' collective spot count was 94% negative, 6% positive.
Until this week, three of the four had aired only negative ads (and the same is true for Priorities USA Action, the lone Democratic presidential super PAC). Restore Our Future was the only leading group advertiser on the Republican side to have aired any positive spots about Romney before October 23, when Crossroads GPS hit the air with its first positive ad of the race. They also focused the messaging more on economic issues with their relentless criticism of Obama on the stimulus package, unemployment and the deficit.
Third, and not contradictory to the above point, Restore Our Future has contributed the most memorable positive Republican ads of the race -- no small thing when you consider how few positive ads have aired. The most-aired ad features Robert Gay, a former colleague of Romney's at Bain Capital, who talks about how Romney closed the firm to set up a search party in New York City to find Gay's missing teenage daughter. The ad has aired on Romney's behalf at three key junctures in the race: during the Republican primary, in early May when Obama was on the air but Romney wasn't yet, and then again earlier this month.
Shrinking the battlefield
Fourth, these groups helped facilitate the historic shrinking of the swing-state map. Along with Priorities USA Action, the GOP super groups carried out the testing of other possible battlegrounds beyond the original eight states. They were the first ones into Wisconsin; the nominees eventually followed. They sponsored the TV advertising in Pennsylvania before that state was sidelined in Democrats' favor; Romney never advertised there. Even now, they continue to carry his water in Michigan and Minnesota.
With the super groups able to advertise in states that may be more of a reach for one side or the other, the nominees' campaigns have now been able to focus on just nine states all the way up until mere days before Election Day, without having to decamp from any of them. In the olden days of 2004 and 2008, late October typically brought tough decisions about pulling ad spend from some states in order to shore up others. In 2012, the campaigns have the luxury of not having to make those decisions.
This tiered approach -- with campaigns focusing on states fully in play and super groups taking on the rest -- has resulted in a 2012 presidential advertising battlefield that has stayed remarkably stable and compact. On October 19, 2008, 112 markets saw presidential advertising on broadcast TV. Four years later, that number was cut nearly in half: 61 markets saw presidential advertising on broadcast TV on October 19.
Finally, and contrary to popular editorial-page and good-government belief, these groups aren't fronts for a foursome of secretive, lone rich guys with post office boxes and hired-gun media consultants. Only two bear the much ballyhooed stamp of super PACs, the other two are nonprofits, and none of them are all that secret. All four boast considerable infrastructure, talk regularly to (some) media and host confabs for party influencers.
For now, these groups represent a conscious outsourcing by Republicans of the single biggest undertaking and expense of any presidential campaign. It's a happy development for TV ad salespeople who can charge them higher rates, a not insignificant cost of doing business that the groups clearly have decided to eat.
Democrats have gone the other way: Obama's campaign has internalized most of the advertising responsibilities traditionally held by a national party committee and as a result, his ad dollars are stretching further, debunking the conventional wisdom that Republicans would swamp him with advertising. The upshot here, too, is that the party's role has been de-emphasized.
Indeed, if it weren't for the law preventing candidates from coordinating with groups, and the voter lists and get-out-the-vote operations that remain the national party committees' greatest contributions to their presidential candidates, these four GOP organizations might be blazing a trail toward a replacement of the creaky national party infrastructure.
In 2004, George W. Bush was the first sitting president to be outspent on TV by the other party. In 2012, Romney will be the first nominee to be out-advertised by members of his own.