Even Sheldon Adelson only gets to vote once.
For months, liberals engaged in hand-wringing over what they saw as the pernicious effect of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on campaign donations, contending it would allow elections to be bought and sold.
They were wrong, at least this time. But so were the wealthy Republicans who agreed with the ruling — such as Mr. Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who with his family gave $53 million to conservative super PACs — and thought it would be as easy as writing a check for as much television time as possible.
At every level, candidates who had the advantage of millions of dollars from newly legal outside groups found defeat at the polls, such as Virginia Senate candidate George Allen, who lost to Tim Kaine despite a $10 million advantage in super PAC money.
The liberal reform group Common Cause has called unlimited contributions to outside groups “the threat to our democracy posed by a billionaire’s caucus of self-interested corporate political contributors.” If that is the case, the caucus spent its money in all the wrong places.
Operatives such as Karl Rove raised hundreds of millions of dollars from the wealthy. Mr. Rove’s Crossroads network spent $166 million on 13 candidates, and only one won on Tuesday.
In Ohio, outside groups backing Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel spent 50 percent more than those behind Sen. Sherrod Brown, but Mr. Brown was re-elected. And, of course, Mr. Adelson — whose personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $20.5 billion — could not purchase affection for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Outside groups spent the vast majority of their money on television ads.
“To see all of this money getting stuck on the airwaves when the nuts and bolts of elections are on the ground I think it’s readily apparent that you win at the precinct level,” said Drew Ryun, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) grass-roots official.
For caviar-accustomed donors, thrift appeared irrelevant as they pursued a strategy of expensive last-minute buys. Adding to the inefficiency was a law that gives preferential ad rates to candidates, meaning that outside groups paid up to 16 times the price per minute of airtime the Obama campaign did. And in the end, the Obama campaign made more ad buys than the Romney campaign and all of his super PACs combined.
Meanwhile, even as the RNC said it was leaving advertising to super PACs so it could focus on ground game, Democrats in swing states had as many as 10 times the staffers. The RNC mocked the Obama campaign’s army of door-knockers as a waste of money.
“Let’s say you’re sitting at home, and someone asks you to register so you say ‘sure,’ even though you haven’t voted in 20 years. Then they have to follow up. It’s a very expensive proposition,” Sean Spicer, the RNC’s communications director, told The Washington Times last week.
Grass-roots efforts take time and money, said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the few conservative groups that has invested heavily in them.
“The unions have that, the environmental lobby. They have staff on the ground year in and year out, and there’s no substitute for that,” he said, adding that he has permanent staff in 34 states.
Ground presence among other conservative groups — including the party — appeared to largely amount to paying consultants for mercenary phone callers and postcard runs, expenditure records indicate. Meanwhile, volunteer sites at some swing states sat empty, in part because the RNC would not pay for travel, operatives said.
“The only way we’re going to win is if we’re honest with ourselves about what happened,” Mr. Ryun said.