Election Day is behind us now (someone please tell Allen West [R-Fla.]), and there’s plenty to be happy about. Nov. 6, 2012, brought a wave of victories for working families and the defeat of some seriously scary candidates backed by billionaires and their deep pockets.
America's workers refused to let their voices be silenced by the nearly $1.5 billion in independent spending that poured into the election and nearly every candidate backed by Karl Rove’s Crossroads conglomerate lost. It’s tempting in this atmosphere to say that Citizens United didn’t matter after all, and that unlimited spending isn’t a problem in U.S. politics. But let’s not jump to premature conclusions on the basis of a single election. Karl Rove isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no guarantee the GOP and its billionaires will make the same stupid missteps next time around.
For one thing—perhaps the most important lesson for all involved to take from this cycle—even $300 million can’t make up for bad candidates and their mouths. Romney is an out-of-touch gazillionaire. Todd Akin personifies the War on Women and Richard Mourdock chose to join that war in the final weeks of the campaign.
Obama’s achievements as president and his incumbency definitely played a role in defending Democrats from the GOP’s corporate backers. Obama came with a built-in donor base that gave him a head start—thousands of regular working people who gave small donations to help keep their candidate afloat in the face of unprecedented political spending. And, unlike Romney, he didn’t have to spend money on a primary, which enabled him to focus instead on key on-the-ground early investments with an eye toward the general election. Even after he laid his campaign infrastructure in 2011, Obama entered 2012 with $81 million cash on hand. Then there’s the down-ballot effect: when some people voted for Obama, they moved down the ballot checking off other members of his party. Obama will not be on the ticket in 2014. In 2016, the presidential election will be a different game without an incumbent, with a fresh set of Democratic aspirants and, likely, a fresh group of Republicans as well. And, of course, the political environment four years from now is impossible to project.
Obama and the Democrats also outmaneuvered the billionaire, right-wing outside money machine by having what the media believes to have been a better campaign and a robust, data-driven labor movement to help. The Obama team has long been known for having young, hip, and tech-savvy staffers on his campaign team while the Romney campaign, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson hired consultants stuck in another era of technology and communication. (Hey, matches the candidates’ policies.) Those Crossroads ads were terrible and right-wing super PACs wasted millions buying ad time indiscriminately rather than targeting markets and audiences with ads that appealed to the viewers or spoke to their issues of concern. Finally, there’s the price difference—candidates can buy airtime cheaper than outside groups, so Obama’s fundraising base had maximum impact.
None of these GOP missteps are guaranteed to recur. Every election is unique, in no small measure because the candidates themselves are. Even the same candidates are different, personally and in the public’s estimation, from one election to the next, and President Obama is the chief example of that. The rich people who promoted Republican candidates in 2012 may have been stupid this time, but losing millions of dollars might prompt them to be more on top of their game next time around. Working people got a reprieve from the full impact of Citizens United in 2012, but we still need to fix our broken democracy.