The secret story of political money has always been the disdain with which much of the political class views donors: They are meddlers and dilettantes, full of terrible advice and inane questions. And donors are justifying that disdain in 2012 as never before. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, by far the worst of this cycle’s political investors, put $10 million behind Newt Gingrich after he had effectively lost the primary campaign. Other groups have poured millions into states their party is unlikely to contest — like Pennsylvania. And perhaps worst of all, their messages often have more to do with donors’ priorities than with a winning ticket. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has drawn particular grumbling for ads whose goal, critics say, is more about ideology than victory in November, its daily message determined, one rival SuperPAC operative jabbed, by “whatever the Koch brothers had for breakfast.” …

The hard-fought Republican primary and the intense conservative opposition to President Obama has meant that the 2012 cycle has been dominated by outside spending by Republicans, though a pro-Obama SuperPAC, labor unions, and environmental and abortion-rights groups have also spent heavily. But when critics of political spending cite the massive numbers invested in presidential politics this cycle — $2.5 billion by November— it’s easy to forget that this is some of the least effective spending in the world. …

But what the SuperPACs are using to fill that gap is hardly the laser-focused, hard-hitting stuff of textbook campaigns. Instead it’s a welter of mixed messages. One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages: American Crossroads was attacking Obama over the deficit; Americans for Prosperity was dwelling on a failed solar energy company, Solyndra; and Restore Our Future was talking about jobs.