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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And last week's election was the most expensive in history. Billions of dollars spent. In the end, not much changed. President Obama was reelected, Democrats retained control of the Senate and Republicans, of the House. And that's raised questions about what return there was from the seven and eight figure investments, if you want to call it that, in campaigns made by dozens of conservatives donors. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It's been pretty common this year to hear about donors making investments in superPACs and other outside groups. Maybe it's because the phrase, political contribution, has a taint to it. Bill Allison, editorial director at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, suggests it also reflects the priorities of the donors themselves.

BILL ALLISON: I think that an awful lot of the time, they're thinking in terms of their bottom line, which is why I think this language has come up so much.

OVERBY: So the Sunlight Foundation calculated the return on these investments, at least on the contributions that have been disclosed. In their findings...

ALLISON: A lot of the really big, ballyhooed superPACs kind of fell flat on their faces.

OVERBY: Exhibit A might be the Crossroads organization, with strategist Karl Rove, among others, at the helm. The superPAC American Crossroads backed seven losing candidates, just two victorious ones. The secretive social welfare group Crossroads GPS did slightly better, 19 losers and 7 winners. Spending by the two Crossroads groups hit about $277 million.

Karl Rove has been defending Crossroads' record. On Fox News last week, he said that President Obama's victory would've been bigger if the Crossroads TV campaign hadn't leveled the playing field. And he also said the Obama campaign played dirty with its TV ads.

KARL ROVE: The president has a really - he succeeded by suppressing the vote, by making - by saying to people, you may not like who I am and I know you can't bring yourself to vote to me, but I'm going to pain this other guy as simply a rich guy who only cares about himself.

OVERBY: It's certainly true that the Obama campaign portrayed Mitt Romney as exactly that. Of course, starting a year earlier, Crossroads GPS had begun running ads depicting the president as inept or sleazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. President, we need jobs, not more Washington insider deals.

OVERBY: Sometimes, the super donors investment strategies have seemed a little muddled. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam gave nearly $54 million to groups backing GOP candidates. But back in January, one of those candidates was Newt Gingrich, who was then battling Romney for the nomination. With Adelson's money, the pro-Gingrich superPAC ran ads that went where Republicans had been afraid to go, a head-on assault on Romney's record as a private equity investor.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: More ruthless than Wall Street. For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.

OVERBY: Adelson and his wife ultimately gave the pro-Gingrich superPAC $20 million. Gingrich was able to stay in the race, Romney was prevented from moving toward the center for the general election. The Adelsons got some of their money back from the pro-Gingrich superPAC and gave it to the pro-Romney superPAC, but meanwhile, Democrats got the green light to go after Romney's business career.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he's done to anyone, and furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Priorities USA Action is responsible for the content...

OVERBY: Priorities USA Action is the superPAC supporting President Obama with its own list of million-dollar donors. And right now, their return on investment looks pretty good. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can follow the money, many mornings, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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