This summer, when a newly formed Super PAC of veterans from military special operations released a 30-second web and TV ad obliquely criticizing President Barack Obama, the story went viral.
The timing was perfect: the PAC, Special Operations for America, included veterans of SEAL Team Six, now famous for the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The messaging echoed a growing note of frustration among the active-duty special ops community that Obama had taken too much credit for the bin Laden raid and had let down the troops with his leadership.
And the parallels were unmistakable. Larry Bailey, founder of parallel Super PAC Special Operations Speaks, told Human Events in July that his group was trying to influence the election the way the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had in 2004: to create legitimate doubt and persuade voters to reconsider their choice.
With the election past, it‚??s clear some expectations fell short. The Special Operations for America TV spot has close to two million YouTube views and leaders of the group received prime media exposure, but fundraising totaled less than $200,000, limiting the PAC‚??s capabilities.
‚??I think given the resources we had, we were modestly successful,‚?Ě said former SEAL Ryan Zinke, founder of Special Operations for America. ‚??As you go through, you learn a lot. It would have been nice to have resources up front.‚?Ě
Bailey, whose PAC raised over $300,000, said he had focused on a ground game‚??rallies and petitions‚??with the goal of gradually influencing public opinion.
‚??You can‚??t measure the effects of a rally, but over time the effects are there,‚?Ě Bailey said.
While the groups punched above their weight class, they‚??like a number of larger, better-resourced organizations‚??were unable ultimately to sway key swing states or play a deciding role in the election.
Weymouth Symmes, former national treasurer for the Swift Boat veterans, told Human Events that its 2004 campaign had been successful in part because they‚??d hit an information-sharing sweet spot.
‚??It was kind of a perfect storm,‚?Ě he said. ‚??It was kind of like a convergence of all the new media plus the old traditional television advertising. A lot of media, and we were effective in our local markets.‚?Ě
By comparison, he said, information campaigns in 2012 risked being drowned out in the total market saturation. Super PACs laid out some half-billion dollars in pre-election spending, and few efforts became dominant election narratives. The opportunity for a small grassroots coalition of veterans to sway the campaign was much narrower.
And maybe too, Symmes said, the groups‚?? messages were too fragmented and issue-focused to resonate with a large portion of the electorate. Special Operations Speaks spent time denouncing alleged White House national security leaks; Special Operations for America concentrated on Obama‚??s ‚??football-spiking‚?Ě following the bin Laden raid.
‚??They just couldn‚??t resonate with enough people,‚?Ě he said. ‚??What we did in ‚??04 turned the whole veterans community around. We just left a shadow of doubt in people‚??s minds: Who is this guy really?‚?Ě
Both groups say their work is not done. Zinke, also a Montana state senator, said Special Operations for America will remain to discuss military budget reductions under sequestration, the Benghazi scandal, and other causes important to troops. Bailey‚??s Special Operations Speaks is leading efforts to denounce alleged White House national security leaks and recently turned in a 100,000-signature petition asking for a special prosecutor to investigate Benghazi.
According to FEC filings, Special Operations for America has nearly $30,000 still in its coffers, while Speaks has nearly $50,000 left.
The challenge now will be to stay relevant without a dominant, unified message at a time when most Americans are more concerned with domestic issues than they are with military concerns.
‚??I don‚??t know how much effect we had except we had several people contact us, begging us to stay alive and be available for the fight that‚??s going to come for the soul of this country,‚?Ě Bailey said. ‚??We‚??ve had people say, ‚??please stay in existence.‚??‚?Ě