They think the way you solve things is by electing the right people. It’s nice to elect the right people, but that isn’t how you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. -Milton Friedman
In the 2012 election, right-leaning super PACs spent over $290 million opposing Obama and $57 million in support of Mitt Romney. Another $60 million were spent for or against the other Republican candidates during the primaries. Democratic-leaning super PACs seem to have spent about one-third as much on the presidential race. Conservative donors to super PACs, who have not gotten value for their money, would be better off spending less money in support of candidates and more money in support of conservative causes.
Right-leaning super PAC ads from 2012 make for curious watching today. The ads in the primaries focused on the foibles and weaknesses of particular Republican candidates, or how this or that candidate is not really conservative. The general election ads tended to be generic (and vague) appeals to smaller government, complaints about the state of the economy, and purely opportunistic partisan shots that could just as easily have been made by the other side if the positions of the two parties were reversed.
These are the kinds of ads you would expect a (not especially imaginative) campaign to run—but that is the point. Right-leaning super PACs, with their vast resources, acted as adjuncts to particular candidacies. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads that, to achieve their intended effect, required the viewer to have either a prior commitment to conservative politics (in the primary), or a conservative-friendly preexisting understanding of what was wrong with the economy. These ads aimed at mobilizing those already inclined to agree with them or exploiting ephemeral controversies. Above all, they were short, rushed, and candidate-focused.
There are reasons to think that a center-right mobilization strategy is not good enough in the demographic America of 2013. The opinions of younger and Latino voters skew left of center on issues related to the size of government. Obamacare is popular among both Latinos and Asian Americans. For all the money that right-leaning super PACs are spending, conservatives are still losing ground among our country’s rising constituencies.
That is partly because of a hole in conservative communication. Conservatives have a huge number of outlets aimed at people who are inclined to consume right-leaning media, but those people are an aging minority of the population. In nonelection years, conservatives are forced to use the mainstream media to communicate with that majority of Americans who do not consume much right-leaning media.
Conservatives like Ronald Reagan were able to use the mainstream news media, with all its liberal biases, for their own purposes, but it is more difficult now. It was much easier for politicians to get viewers to sit through lengthy speeches back when there were far fewer television outlets. That is not even the worst of it. The mainstream news media might lean liberal, but their journalistic norms are such that they usually have to offer spokesmen and statements from both sides of a public controversy.
The conservative predicament is much worse among those who depend on the entertainment media for their exposure to political personalities. A young person (or anyone who did not consume much right-leaning media) could easily have gone to the polls and known nothing about Mitt Romney other than that he wanted to cut taxes on the wealthy, that he thought 47 percent of Americans were parasites, and that he was simply hoping to ride the weak economy to the presidency.
Right-leaning super PAC ads primarily rehearsed established conservative narratives. But since fewer and fewer people have contact with those narratives in the first place, the groups are spending more and more money to talk to an ever-shrinking fraction of the population. The tactics of the right-leaning super PACs would make sense if they operated atop a base of institutions that spoke to the apolitical public in the years between elections. The center-left has the entertainment industry and academia that can present liberal ideas in a positive light to those who experience their politics passively. Conservatives do not have similar institutions to speak to rising constituencies and cannot make up for it by turning their super PACs into a redundant campaign structure.
But super PACs can still play a vital and constructive role in conservative politics. They just have to break away from their current party and candidate focus. Right-leaning ones could focus their resources on explaining conservative policies in nonelection years to people who don’t consume conservative media. Explain how conservative ideas could work to cut taxes on working families while encouraging investment. Explain the radicalism of the Democratic party’s abortion agenda, defend the humanity of the late-term fetus, and lay out a series of incremental policy changes. Explain how alternative health care policies could increase workers’ take-home pay while maintaining their families’ health security. Create a set of positive impressions of what conservatives think to people who might never have heard a positive conservative idea.
Abortion could be one place to start. A well-funded campaign could shift the abortion conversation toward the radicalism of current American abortion law, the abortion radicalism of the Democratic party, the human reality of the late-term fetus, and the possibility of incremental pro-life policy change. One can easily imagine such a campaign alienating its intended audience. A truly effective campaign would combine principle with a prudent understanding of its audience’s sensibilities. That is why such an abortion-related super PAC campaign would be wise to have its ad campaign reviewed by someone like Robert P. George and why a conservative super PAC campaign centered around health care should very strongly lean on James Capretta to construct their message.
This would have benefits that go beyond growing the coalition for center-right politics. Familiarizing the public with conservative policy reforms would increase the effectiveness of ads by Republican campaigns and speeches by Republican candidates. It will be easier for Republican candidates to talk about conservative reforms if the public already has some idea of what those reforms are. It is tough for a Republican candidate, in the heat of a campaign, to start from scratch in explaining conservative health care reform to the public. One can imagine an exceptionally principled and talented candidate doing that, but counting on Republican candidates to be both exceptionally principled and exceptionally talented seems like a bad bet.
The harder the job of explaining seems, the less inclined Republican candidates will be to do it. Popularizing a set of conservative policy ideas would make the more principled Republican candidates more effective and encourage the opportunistic Republican candidates to compete on the level of adopting and explaining the policy agenda and priorities popularized by the right-leaning super PACs. Instead of the right-leaning super PACs supporting the least bad Republican candidate, let the Republicans compete to best represent a policy agenda. It could create a virtuous cycle where conservative ideas get a better hearing and Republican candidates are incentivized to run more policy-based campaigns.