This was the first SuperPAC election after the John Roberts Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that the first amendment (freedom of speech) prevented government from restricting these Political Action Committees from interfering in political elections. It opened a free for all - while the names and addresses of those who donate more than $200 directly to candidates need to be disclosed, donations to the PACs and SuperPACs don't have to be disclosed at all and they can give unlimited amounts.
Not all the SuperPAC donors kept their identity secret - some donors revelled at the thought they were so powerful they could buy the election. People like the Koch brothers (movies) and Sheldon Adleson (casinos) wanted everyone to know they were involved, the better to take credit for removing Obama. Indeed so determined were these billionaires to take credit that the Boston Globe reported that 80 private Gulfstream jets appeared in Boston's Logan airport looking for a landing slot on the afternoon of November 6th causing a traffic jam - they were hoping to be present at what they hoped was Mitt Romney's victory party.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, under the old rules where you had to donate to the candidate, he got to decide how the money was spent, and hence produced a coherent campaign.
The SuperPACs were independent and run by egotists who had their own agenda. So Sheldon Adelson, whose casino business is under investigation by the SEC and the Dept of Justice for foreign bribery, originally backed Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination, and financed a series of attack ads via the SuperPAC "Winning Our Future" which successfully smeared Romney as a "predatory capitalist". Obama loved it - some of his enemies were doing the work of trashing the man he'd most likely face in the Presidential race.
Then Romney got the nomination and Sheldon Adelson found out that he'd get a $2billion tax cut under a Romney administration and immediately pledged to spend $100 million to help Romney get elected. Of course that meant undoing some of the damage he himself had already done to Romney. He could have just run an ad saying "I'm an idiot for spending $20 million to smear Romney when I've now got to spend $100 million to help him", but sadly, such an ad didn't occur to him. His idea of "helping" was to fund a variety of SuperPacs to attack Obama (even while Obama was successfully building on the earlier Adelson attacks on Romney). You could say that Sheldon Adelson has passed into history as the wannabe "Boss Tweed" of his generation.
Secondly, voters got really irritated at the self-important behavior of the Boss Tweeds in trying to buy the election - if you want to know why so many people tried to vote early and stoically waited in line for 6 hours to vote on a freezing November day, you have the answer - to stick it to the grandiose group who thought the American Republic was one-dollar-one- vote rather than one-person-one vote.
What did the SuperPACs spend their money on?
They paid for things like the phone bills on phone banks staffed by volunteers, rallies (which require convention centers to be booked) and television advertising. The website propublica lists all manner of things bought by the SuperPACS, such as advertising on Facebook, to the printing of signs to salaries of people employed by the SuperPACS. For example, they report that on November 3rd, American Crossroads (the SuperPac funded by the Koch brothers) spent a total of $3,006,632 on TV ads.
Expect the media companies, phone companies and people who produce flyers and signs in the battleground states to have had a boost.
It is estimated that Obama and Romney spent about $2billion directly on the election and the SuperPACS may have spent an additional $2 billion.
That's a substantial amount of money being released into the economy (funded by some people who avoid taxes! - I guess this is an act of self-taxing).
The donors to the Republican side got very little in return for their money. If Obama holds his nerve, Sheldon Adelson will find himself paying his $2 billion in taxes on top of the $100 million he so thoughtfully injected into the economy. The Q4 economic figures might show a small boost from all the election activity - and of course Obama will get the credit.
What are the lessons from this election?
I think future SuperPAC donors will want to keep themselves anonymous to avoid the humiliation of the Sheldon Adelson's of this world. But they should also expect to face a determined effort to "out" them by any means by their opponents. SuperPAC donors may not want to spend the money in the same way - while they were wasting money on TV ads, the Obama campaign was quietly concentrating on it's Get-Out-The-Vote operations. The nature of campaigning may change in future elections.
One thing is for sure: some elements of corporate America got a shock this election, while others (Google, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley operations who gave to Obama) found that their "new tech" tactics worked extremely effectively. The tech companies are probably the winners - their guy won, plus they've learned more than they could possibly have hoped for about the field of data-mining, knowledge you can be sure will be put to use in a commercial setting.