It wasn’t surprising that some candidates jumped at the chance to effectively outsource their campaign to a handful of big donors, once that became a clear possibility, rather than relying on fickle small donors and exhausting grip-and-grins with bundlers and their friends. In doing so, though, they surrender crucial control and lose the flexibility to course-correct that they have on their actual campaign.
This became especially clear when Never Back Down catastrophically undermined DeSantis’ first debate after — because of coordination restrictions — they posted a highly specific game plan that was publicly accessible online. It was discovered by The New York Times right before the debate, forcing the candidate into a box: Using its advice would look canned; failing to use it when there was an opening could feed stories about internal dissension over strategy.
Taking over so many of the operations and goals of a campaign, including its ground game, has so far not helped Never Back Down win votes for DeSantis. One reason is subjective, though it’s an opinion shared by plenty of operatives: Its ads haven’t been very good.
The early ads attempted to introduce DeSantis and undermine Trump on assorted individual conservative issues with little in the way of a big unifying theme. To the extent they’ve gotten attention, it’s often been for provocative minor gimmicks. In May, Never Back Down’s video about the DeSantis campaign launch added fake fighter jets to footage of the Florida governor waving at a 2022 campaign rally. In July, another ad used AI to simulate Donald Trump’s voice for a dramatic, tinny reading of the criticism he’d posted of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Truth Social.
Another problem, shared by every super PAC, is that a system that puts no limits on what donors can give bestows great power on those donors — like the power to chat with reporters and set narratives — outside of any campaign’s sphere of influence. Ellison’s shell game created a problem for Scott by suggesting that a massive pile of money would be available to him. When it never showed up, Scott suffered from the missing air cover, then suffered again from questions about donors losing confidence in him.
I would add another important factor: candidates who rely too much on super pacs don’t develop/hone the skills to be good retail politicians. They don’t need those grab and grin sessions and so they do less of them. But then they don’t know how to talk to people in ways people relate to.
I write much more about this, and the real problem with Super PACs and other big money in elections, in Plutocrats United.