WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove's Crossroads groups have come under heavy criticism since the Nov. 6 elections, from which they walked away with little to show for their $300 million-plus budget. But this isn't the first time that an outside group dropped big money on a presidential election and failed. In 2004, Democrats organized a massive independent campaign funded by billionaires that failed to take back the White House from President George W. Bush.
Dig deeper into this comparison, however, and it turns against Rove.
While the 2012 Republican effort and the 2002 Democratic initiative share unwanted similarities -- lost the presidential race, lost seats in the Senate, faced heavy criticism afterward -- the latter initiative also sowed the seeds for future victory.
The majority of the independent Democratic money spent in 2004 went through a group called America Coming Together (ACT). Instead of spending millions on television ads, ACT put more than $100 million into creating a national get-out-the-vote campaign that, in many ways, changed the way the Democratic Party does politics
ACT ran a modern multi-state get-out-the-vote campaign that deployed paid canvassers and Internet targeting and exploited a national voter file as never before. The group experimented with what combinations of voter contacts would produce better outcomes -- mail pieces, billboards, knocks on the door. And it began those person-to-person contacts in 2003.
"We created a whole new generation of organizers," said ACT's former head, Steve Rosenthal. "I mean, literally everywhere I go, from state Democratic Party chairmen to campaign managers to field directors to people who are running most of the biggest turnout programs in the country, now they're all alumni of what we built in 2004. There was something there; there was something real."
Rosenthal -- who had previously been the political director for the AFL-CIO, where he ran the union's voter mobilization efforts -- pointed to a number of individuals who came from ACT and are now in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party.
At the top of that list is Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, who, as Barack Obama's national political director in 2008, helped organize the campaign's grassroots mobilization. Gaspard, who also served as director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under President Obama, was ACT's national field director.
"There's a legacy of grassroots organizing and mobilizing voters that is critical to the success that we've seen over the last two presidential elections," Rosenthal said.
Other ACT alumni who have since risen through the ranks in Democratic Party politics praised the education that the 2004 effort gave them.
Wisconsin state Democratic Party chair Mike Tate was a field director for ACT in Wisconsin. Tate said that ACT "really informed my approach to pretty much every other campaign that I've either run or been on or now that I'm party chair."
"Some of the methods that we used in ACT, we employed in the city of Milwaukee this last time around and we achieved the highest turnout ever in the city of Milwaukee," Tate said. "I think we got something like 12,000 to 14,000 more [Democratic] votes this time around than we did in 2008." (Milwaukee Election Commission records show that Obama received 14,000 more votes from city residents in 2012 than in 2008.)
Sarah Benzing, campaign manager for this year's reelection of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), worked as an ACT field organizer in Iowa and Ohio in 2004. "I learned so many skills from that race, from America Coming Together, that I brought with me," she said.
Another ACT alumna, Karin Johanson, ran the successful 2012 Senate bid of Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
Immediately after the 2004 election, however, ACT's work was not roundly embraced. Critics charged that the get-out-the-vote effort duplicated contacts by party volunteers and sometimes irritated voters on the ground. (The group disbanded in 2005 as interest waned and paid $775,000 in 2007 to settle Federal Election Commission charges that it inappropriately covered certain expenses with funds raised outside federal campaign finance restrictions.)
Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the Crossroads groups, raised similar concerns about get-out-the-vote campaigns in an email explaining why they did not invest in a person-to-person ground game. "[I]t's very difficult and potentially ineffective and inefficient for an outside group, which is prohibited from coordinating with candidates or local parties, to do on-ground GOTV [get-out-the-vote] activity, as there's huge potential to be redundant against what candidates and party are doing on the ground," Collegio said.
But Rove may be changing his mind on the utility of a get-out-the-vote focus. He told Fox News on Monday that Republicans need to "reexamine tactically our ground game."
For the moment, Rove's spending behemoth looks a lot like another outside Republican initiative that dropped a lot of money on advertising and left little mark. Freedom's Watch, a 2008 vehicle funded by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and headed by Carl Forti, now the political director for the Crossroads groups, didn't elect Sen. John McCain and folded immediately after the election.