Jeb’s magnificent super PAC: an autopsy

by Alec Goodwin

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in happier days, shortly after announcing his campaign for the White House in 2015. (Flickr/Michael Vadon)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in happier days, shortly after announcing his campaign for the White House in 2015. (Flickr/Michael Vadon)

Super PACs can churn through a lot of money. Exhibit A: Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise USA.

Led by veteran GOP operative Mike Murphy, Right to Rise was excoriated in the press for burning through $87 million in independent expenditures in support of  Bush (and tens of millions more in operating expenses — $104 million total) without any discernible evidence that the super PAC moved the needle for the former Florida governor.

We can’t say what the super PAC did wrong, if anything. There are too many moving parts in a political race. A campaign is built around a candidate, and in debates and on the trail, the wonkish Bush never connected well with sufficient numbers of voters. He withdrew from the race in late February after months of low poll ratings. Maybe there was nothing Right to Rise could have done to save him.

What we can do, though, is perform a post-mortem on how Right to Rise spent tens of millions of dollars.

Bush’s super PAC was particularly important to his effort. Before he formally announced his candidacy, he drove donations to Right to Rise for months, something that wouldn’t be allowed once he made his White House bid official. Many deep-pocketed donors seemed happy to give to the group, which could accept unlimited sums from practically any source. What nobody predicted was that his campaign committee, which could accept only up to $2,700 from each donor for the primaries, would struggle mightily to fill its coffers. Near the end, Bush even complained about Citizens United, saying he wished he could raise unlimited funds for his committee instead of relying on super PACs like Right to Rise.

Still, Right to Rise was highly visible with its ads on Bush’s behalf. The $87 million drive to get Bush elected had many facets: ad production, digital ads, direct mail, phone calls, and traditional media buys.

From mid-June 2015, when Bush announced he was running for president, to Feb. 20, when he announced he was quitting the race, Right to Rise spent more on traditional ad buys – TV, radio, and print – than on any other expenditure: $77.3 million, or about 89 percent of Right to Rise’s total independent expenditures as reported to the FEC; most of that went for TV.

Some argued that the ads were of a lower quality than the ads run by the Bush campaign itself. It was certainly true that Right to Rise paid a lot more to run the spots, since campaigns — but not super PACs — must be charged lower rates by TV stations.

But the most striking aspect of Right to Rise’s strategy was the apparent lack of focus on digital advertising. The super PAC spent $86.8 million in independent expenditures , but just $1.2 million on digital advertising placement. Digital ad buys, all of which went through the Murphy-owned Revolution Media Group and Revolution Agency, made up just 1.4 percent of Right to Rise’s independent expenditures. The dearth of digital advertising seems odd given that Jeb, in a Washington Post/ABC News Poll in December 2015, scored just as well with internet-savvy people aged 18-49 as with those over 50, who may be online less constantly.

Mike Murphy, the head of Right to Rise, could not be reached for comment.

Right to Rise’s digital ad spending also is outside the norm for other top super PACs in 2016. The best comparison may be to Conservative Solutions PAC, the super PAC backing Bush’s fellow Floridian and failed GOP White House candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R – Fla.) . Conservative Solutions spent 11.9 percent of its independent expenditures on digital ads. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has spent 18 percent of independent expenditures on digital ad buys so far this cycle. Even the failed anti-Trump super PAC, Our Principles PAC, spent 6.5 percent of its independent expenditures on digital ads attacking the billionaire Republican during the primary.

Curiously, Right to Rise reported spending on digital media placements only in September and October — which doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when the ads actually ran, though it seems likely given the pattern of Right to Rise’s spending for other types of ads throughout the campaign. That means Right to Rise decided not to boost the digital advertising budget even as Bush’s poll ratings continued to decline. Even when the super PAC’s spending skyrocketed in January, digital ads weren’t a part of that last push.

Graph by John Bowers | Right to Rise spent the most on traditional ad buys.
Graph by John Bowers | Right to Rise spent the most on traditional ad buys.

While the super PAC didn’t appear to spend much on digital ads, Bush’s own campaign didn’t, either. While super PACs and campaigns aren’t supposed to coordinate their spending, it’s common to see the two somehow complementing each other’s efforts rather than duplicating them. Bush’s digital side faced turmoil from the get-go, with his tech director stepping down after racist statements he’d posted on a website came to light.

, which fell from 8.5 percent at the beginning of October to 5.4 percent by the end of the year. Bush was in fifth place at that point, in part due to poor debate performances, but Right to Rise shelled out just $5.8 million in December.

Bush’s team had good reason to move to code red, with major contests close at hand: The all-important Iowa caucuses were Feb. 1, and the New Hampshire primary was set for Feb. 16. And indeed, Murphy and others steering the Right to Rise behemoth seemed to panic in January: The super PAC spent 32.7 million that month, more than it spent in any other month. The group even sent out a mailer containing a video player preloaded with a Bush documentary.

But the candidate stayed trapped around 5.5 percent throughout the month in national polls, and Iowa went poorly; winning just 2.8 percent of the vote, Bush came in sixth. After the loss, the campaign began to spin the result as part of a plan. A “talking points” memo for advisers and high-profile supporters snagged by Politico claimed “The Jeb 2016 campaign has never made Iowa a centerpiece to winning the nomination,” and identifies New Hampshire as the beginning of the “real race for the nomination.” But the data seems to show that Bush’s super PAC cared a great deal about the Hawkeye State. Right to Rise spent $14.9 million on TV ads in Iowa in the run-up to the caucuses. And Bush didn’t do much better in New Hampshire, though Right to Rise dumped 29.5 million into TV ads alone in that state: He came in fourth.

At the end of the January, Right to Rise had spent $80.2 million in independent expenditures, with little to show for it. Since the group had raised $121 million, it had another $41 million with which it could try to boost the candidate. It spent another $6.6 million in February, even beginning to phone voters for the first time. But all the super PAC money didn’t matter because Bush’s campaign had run out of cash. He dropped out on Feb. 20.

And that may be the ultimate lesson of the Right to Rise debacle. Soft money from super PACs and 501(c)s can help swing a race, but without hard money in a campaign’s coffers, a candidate won’t be able to hang on for long.

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