In the 2012 election, Ohio radio and television stations couldn’t sign contracts for political advertising fast enough as a seismic shift occurred in American politics, playing out on TV screens and car radios across the Buckeye State.
Independent political groups with confusing-sounding labels like super PACs, 501(C)(4)s, and 527 organizations singled out Ohio to divide tens of millions of dollars among dozens of broadcasters to lock up air time.
Their goal: Sway, if not manipulate the famous swing-state voters.
Those groups — funded by rich business people and corporations outside Ohio and working separately from the candidates and political parties — spent at least $28 million here on the presidential election, $38.9 million in the U.S. Senate race, and $18 million on Ohio’s 16 congressional races.
In the hotly contested Senate race alone, Republican strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS aired broadside after broadside against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, spending more than $6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In fact, outside interests spent more to support Brown’s opponent, Republican Josh Mandel, than did Mandel’s own campaign.
Altogether, that means that outside groups, mostly conservative, spent at least $85 million to sway Ohio voters in the 2012 U.S. races.
Ohioans know something has changed. They have a keen sense that there are more ads and meaner messages. What many don’t know is that in the last six years, corporations and billionaire business magnates have stripped traditional campaigns and political parties of their power.
The rich are keeping their money and controlling the message through their own organizations. With little accountability and little transparency, they deliver messages that shock and dismay the Midwestern psyche.
Presumably, political consultants spend heavily on dramatic negative TV ads because they do what they’re supposed to: influence voters.
Asked for three words to express their feelings about the ads, Ohioans exude disgust.
Alex Nestor, 21, a student at Ohio University’s Lancaster campus, referred to the ads as "intrusive, ineffective, obnoxious."
Rosalyn Webber, 48, of Mansfield, called them "pathetic, tired, tacky…. [Rich donors] think Ohioans are stupid, plain and simple. They think that people in Ohio don’t have the sense that God gave geese."
"Bunch of lies," said Ron Baker, 76, of Galion.
"I really don’t respect most of the advertising that’s available," said Jeff Nelson, 64, of Toledo, a field engineer in electronics. "Most of it’s stuff that isn’t totally true. It’s easy to take a sentence or part of a sentence out of context, or to say ‘He voted for that,’ when in fact it was a procedural vote."
He said he’s likely to grab the remote and switch channels, and rely on his own research on candidates.
Kristina Keeler, 56, of Perrysburg, a pre-school teacher, said TV ads are "unhelpful."
"I despise the amount of money we spend on all of our campaigns. What a waste of money. Put that money to better use," Ms. Keeler said. She acknowledged that the ads probably work with her, to some extent.
"I have a reaction to an ad on TV, whether it’s patriotic and feel-good or gloom and doom, you can’t help it," she said.
A Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans say money and influence from outside interests is the "biggest problem with elected officials in Washington." And there is strong public support across party lines to cap contribution limits from individuals, including billionaires and corporations.
The pivotal moment
The January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission gave First Amendment protection to wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money — provided they didn’t directly coordinate with the candidates they were supporting.
Some of the spending is required to be reported to the FEC, and some of it is reported voluntarily. The Campaign Finance Institute, using Federal Elections Commission numbers, estimates that in the 10 months following the Citizens United ruling, outside spending on positive ads to support Congressional candidates doubled, but more importantly, spending on attack ads increased nearly eight-fold.
Without transparency, and without culpability for the candidates, there was little incentive to play nice.
According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Center for Responsive Politics, through its Website
, total outside spending nationwide in the 2012 presidential race leaned heavily Republican.
Independent spending nationwide was $424.4 million supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and $145 million supporting Democratic President Barack Obama.
However, the sources of the money often is a mystery, which is why it’s sometimes known as "dark money."
A good example of how independent expenditures influence elections while leaving a minimal impact on the public record is that of Americans for Prosperity, the 501(c) organization funded by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Look up its 2012 expenditures in opensecrets.org and the only line that comes up is: $33,542,051 spent against President Obama’s re-election.
AFP isn’t much more forthcoming about its donors, either, which don’t have to be disclosed to the FEC. Through cross-referencing with nonprofit organizations’ tax returns, the Center for Responsive Politics has identified 66 donors, all of them other organizations. The biggest contributor, with $65 million donated since 2010, is Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which accounts for about two-thirds of AFP’s total donations of $96.9 million.
Freedom Partners is controlled by the Koch brothers.
No bread crumbs
How much of that was spent in Ohio is not reported to the Federal Election Commission, and thus difficult to gauge.
Federal law requires broadcasters to provide public access to all their political advertising contracts, and so the campaigns’ media consultants collect the information through constant contact with the television and radio stations in all of the nation’s media markets. Those records only must be kept two years.
Since 2014, broadcasters have been required to post the information on the Internet, improving the ability of the public and the news media to find out who’s spending how much.
It’s still a data-gathering nightmare.
Two large organizations contacted by The Blade refused to divulge information about the 2012 presidential election campaign.
The Washington Post in 2012 hired a media firm to collect data and reported that the total spending in Ohio on the 2012 election — including candidates and outside groups — was $78 million in favor of Mr. Romney and $72 million in favor of Mr. Obama, for a total of $150 million.
That made Ohio the third most expensive battleground state , after Florida, with $173 million, and Virginia, with $151 million.
Separating the outside spending is harder. National Public Radio reported that independent political groups spent $28.3 million between April 10 and Oct. 10 in Ohio. It’s reasonable to assume that half-again as much was spent in the final month before the 2012 election.
Given that President Obama was re-elected with a comfortable margin in Ohio, one could ask whether the barrage of anti-Democratic advertising was worth it.
Reportedly, the Koch brothers have taken stock of their political spending after its lack of success in 2012 and 2014.
The publication Politico.com reported that the brothers have taken their spending "deeper" — away from TV ads and into staff, training, data analysis, and building a voter database. Furthermore, they remained neutral in the Republican presidential nomination contest and have not yet endorsed the presumptive nominee, fellow billionaire Donald Trump.
“There were memos that were done in that cycle on money that was spent unsuccessfully and there was a little bit of a shakeup in thinking about that," said Mary Bottari, spokesman for a Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit group in Madison, Wisc., that advocates for tighter election financing laws.
"We need disclosure in campaigns and elections and we need limits on spending in campaigns and elections and we need to level the playing field for average citizens to run for office," she said. "Average citizens aren’t going to be able to raise $20 million to run for office."
The Mandel machine
Somewhat more information is available about the 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate between incumbent Senator Brown and challenger Mr. Mandel, the state treasurer.
The barrage of conservative negative advertising alarmed the Brown campaign, which complained loudly about the invasion of "dark money" into Ohio’s election campaign.
Rove’s Crossroads GPS created one ad targeting Mr. Brown’s support for the trillion-dollar stimulus bill aimed at softening the impact of the 2007-2009 recession.
"You voted for skyrocketing debt, the failed stimulus and Obamacare," the narrator intoned. "You voted for reckless spending, and how’d you pay for it? Billions in new taxes and trillions in crushing debt. Sorry, Senator Brown. No more reckless spending, no new taxes, and no more blank checks."
Justin Barasky, who was communications director for Senator Brown in 2012 and is now communications director for a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA, said the outside spending in Ohio was the most of any U.S. Senate race in the country in 2012.
He estimates the outside spending at $31 million against Senator Brown versus $12.5 million favorable to Senator Brown.
His estimate is about $4.6 million higher than the Center for Responsive Politics’ estimate of $38.9 million, and he contends it is more accurate.
"We had a media firm and they had someone whose job it was to track the buys," Mr. Barasky said.
"Yes [Senator Brown] won, but imagine how much more he would have won by if they hadn’t spent $31 million on TV? No question it makes a difference. [Mr. Mandel] is a fantastic fund-raiser, but he was a pretty bad candidate otherwise, and yet the race was very competitive, and it shouldn’t have been," Mr. Barasky said.
Seth Unger, a political spokesman for Mr. Mandel, had a different take on the 2012 Senate race. He pointed out that, with Senator Brown’s bigger campaign warchest taken into account, total spending on the race was pretty close: $42.4 million for Mr. Mandel and $39.8 million for Mr. Brown. He disputed Mr. Barasky’s claims that the outside spending was higher than Center for Responsive Politics’ accounting.
Mr. Unger said the 2012 Senate race was the closest in 36 years in Ohio, and that Mr. Mandel outperformed his Republican compatriots in Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and West Virginia. No incumbent Democratic U.S. senator was defeated in 2012.
"Treasurer Mandel respects the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and believes strongly in free speech," Mr. Unger said.
A repeat contest could be on tap for 2018. Mr. Mandel in January filed papers with the FEC to run the U.S. Senate. Mr. Brown is up for re-election in 2018.
While Freedom Partners does everything it can to avoid disclosing its donors, the organization makes an effort to notify the news media and thereby the public of its TV ad campaigns.
"Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce is a free-market chamber of commerce with hundreds of members — businessmen/women and philanthropists, including Charles and David Koch," said Freedom Partners spokesman Bill Riggs.
In January, Charles Koch held a meeting with 500 supporters at his estate in Indian Wells, Calif., and invited journalists from USA Today, Buzzfeed News, Bloomberg, NBC News, and Palm Springs Desert Sun to observe.
Mr. Koch said, "This isn’t some secret cabal. We have ideas that will make American better."
For University of Akron senior Dominic Caruso, though, the rich are using their money to silence the people.
"They don’t want the people to talk. They want their money to talk," he said. "It’s unfair. I don’t have equal speech anymore because I don’t have the money to make an ad. So I don’t have equal speech to these wealthy people."
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6058 and on Twitter @TomFTroy
Also contributing to this story were the Akron Beacon Journal and Gannett Ohio newspapers.