PACs losing in Ohio

Pity poor conservative billionaires. The ultra-rich didn’t get that way by burning their dollars, but that’s exactly what they appear to be doing in this new era of the super-PAC

Nowhere did they expect to have a greater impact than in Ohio, where first-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTrump VA pick faces challenge to convince senators he’s ready for job Overnight Finance: Senate repeals auto-lending guidance, shattering precedent with vote | House passes IRS reform bills | Senate GOP fears tax cut sequel Dem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 MORE is at his most vulnerable — his first reelection campaign. Conservatives are convinced that Brown, a populist firebrand, is too liberal for the evenly divided battleground state he represents. So big right-wing donors staked their money behind those beliefs — sinking over $10.5 million into attack ads as of early July. 

No non-presidential candidate has been on the receiving end of more super-PAC sludge than Brown. Yet Brown’s numbers haven’t exactly suffered. In January, the Ohio senator had a polling average, as compiled by Talking Points Memo’s poll tracker, of 46.9 percent (his Republican opponent, Josh Mandel, trailed at 33.2 percent). 

Now, seven months and $10.5 million later, Brown is up to 47.8 percent. 

That kind of negates the whole point of spending millions of dollars to soften someone up, doesn’t it? If anything, Brown is looking even stronger. And of course, none of those anti-Brown attack ads can do much to boost Mandel’s numbers. While Mandel’s percentage of the vote has improved since January as he consolidated post-primary conservative support, he’s not exactly breathing down Brown’s neck. His 39.6 percent average is underwhelming, and wouldn’t even be that high without a helpful boost from the GOP’s favorite pollster, Rasmussen. At this point, this race is looking second-tier at best.

So if eight figures’ worth of attack ads can’t make a dent in a supposedly vulnerable freshman senator’s armor, what can it possibly do to President Obama? The answer to that, apparently, is: Not much. 

Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have spent about $4 million attacking Obama in Ohio, while the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity has spent roughly $2 million doing the same. The pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC has spent another quarter of a million in the state. Those dollars, plus another $7 million or so that Romney’s campaign has dropped into the Buckeye State, have taken them from a small deficit against Obama ... to a much larger one.

Obama began 2012 leading in Ohio in the TPM polling composite 44.8 to 44.2 percent. That lead has expanded significantly, and is now 48.2 to 42.3 percent. As is the case with the campaign to smear Brown, not only have the attack ads proven completely incapable of eroding Obama’s support, Romney’s own numbers are slipping back as he struggles to hide his Bain and tax records.

Conservative billionaires have committed to spending untold amounts of money to try and buy this year’s elections, but the nearly $100 million they’ve spent thus far nationally has done nothing to move the needle in their direction. How long will they keep throwing good money after bad? 

Common sense suggests that super-PAC spending will have an impact where the candidates are least-known and -defined, such as House and local races. But in the age of DVRs and Web-only media consumption, fewer people are watching commercials. And whether it’s a function of an increasingly partisanized electorate, or whether people have just gotten really good at ignoring political ads, the fact is their impact is objectively decreasing.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).