Deputy editor, national politics

Have conservative groups bungled their chance to help defeat Barack Obama?

Fueled with tens of millions of dollars in unlimited contributions, a network of GOP super PACs and nonprofit groups began the year with heady talk of bringing down President Obama with a ceaseless barrage of attack ads.

But judging from the latest polls, the effort hasn’t gone very well. Obama is holding a narrow lead over Republican nominee Mitt Romney nationally and appears to be widening his advantage in key swing states such as Ohio and Virginia, according to mainstream pollsters.

The trend has prompted second-guessing among many political strategists and observers, who question why conservative groups weren’t more unified in their ad messages over the summer and fault Romney’s campaign for failing to build a positive impression of the candidate among voters.

Charlie Cook, the veteran political prognosticator, has been harshly critical of the pro-Romney strategy, saying it was “inexplicable” that the campaign and its supporters did not put forward a clear biographical portrait of the GOP candidate over the summer.

“The Obama campaign and allies ripped Romney apart in swing-state advertising, and with no Teflon coating to protect their candidate, it stuck like Velcro,” Cook wrote in a recent assessment.

Those behind the bulk of the conservative ads beg to disagree, saying they were successful in keeping the president from using ample campaign funds and the power of the incumbency to open up a wide lead. In other words, they say that Romney could be much further behind — a la Bob Dole in 1996 — if not for the onslaught of conservative ads attacking Obama’s record on jobs and the economy.

“Our goal was to make sure that the president’s numbers with regards to the economy stayed low, stayed where he could be beat,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which has run more than $33 million in ads related to the presidential race this cycle. “When you look at where he stands today, I think it’s obvious that strategy has worked.”

The hopes of some conservatives seemed loftier earlier in the year, however, when the possibilities of super PAC fundraising seemed limitless and Obama’s approval ratings were weighed down by a struggling economy. The chances of Republican dominance on the airwaves were buoyed further when the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee outraised Obama and the Democrats from May to July.

But the latest numbers show that in terms of dollars spent, the ad wars have been largely a draw: The pro-Romney side has spent about $223 million on broadcast ads since April, compared with $209 million for Obama, according to tracking estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG. The bulk of the burden on the Republican side has been carried by AFP, American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and other independent groups.

Despite spending less, the Obama campaign and its key super PAC ally, Priorities USA Action, appear to have outmaneuvered their opponents in battleground states by picking cheaper advertising slots and, since early September, taking advantage of ad discounts provided to candidates. New data released Wednesday by the Wesleyan Media Project showed that Obama and Priorities aired more than 92,000 spots in key markets Sept. 9-30 — a 31 percent volume advantage over the entire Republican side, which spent about the same amount of money.

“Obama has been very, very efficient,” CMAG President Ken Goldstein said.

Democratic strategists also argue that they have been aided by a disjointed strategy among GOP groups, who seemed to pull in and out of swing states willy-nilly and did little to make up for downturns in spending by the Romney campaign at crucial moments. Ad messages have ranged widely from the economy to energy policy to foreign policy.

Bill Burton, spokesman for Priorities USA Action, said GOP groups mounted “a series of erratic, incoherent and often contradictory attacks.”

“Our singular focus is illustrating how Romney’s agenda benefits the wealthiest at the expense of middle-class families,” Burton said.

American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio disagrees, saying that Republican groups have done a good job countering Obama’s financial advantage over Romney.

“President Obama spent $173 million between May and August trying to knock Mitt Romney out early with negative TV ads, and conservative groups largely balanced that out by coordinating their expenditures over that time period,” he said.