The Iowa Ad Bonanza: GOP Candidates’ Closing Arguments on TV

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As the GOP presidential primary campaign winds down its Iowa chapter, the candidates have taken to their buses and prop planes to sniff out undecided voters in the farthest reaches of the state before Tuesday’s caucuses. But to the nonfanatical participants, those who haven’t crowded into coffee shops or diners to catch a glimpse of the candidates in the flesh, the battle for Iowa has largely played out in their living rooms, waged in 30- and 60-sec. clips bookended by evening newscasts. Here’s what those Iowans have been seeing in the final days of the campaign:

Mitt Romney

What it says:  “The spirit of enterprise, innovation, pioneering and can-do propelled our standard of living and economy past that of any other nation on earth.” Romney says over a montage of his campaign appearances and images of economic-flavored Americana. “And in the campaign to come, the American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense. And I intend to make it because I have lived it.”

What it means: Romney’s experience in business, first as a corporate consultant and then as a partner at a private-equity firm that overhauled companies, makes him the best-suited candidate to attack President Obama on his handling of the economy and thus best-positioned to win in November. There’s a wink and a nod to conservative orthodoxy —”unapologetic defense” of “economic freedom” — but this is, at its heart, a general election ad. The voiceover isn’t even from Iowa; it’s from his June campaign-launch announcement in New Hampshire. As it was then, Romney’s case is simple: Pick me; I’ll win.

How many people will see it*: A lot. Romney’s campaign spent some $1.5 million on TV ads in Iowa in 2011. Despite falling into a $10 million trap there in 2008 and remaining aloof for most of last year, Romney is seriously contesting the state and is now neck and neck with Ron Paul in the polls and angling for an early knockout blow in the nomination fight.

Bonus point: For all the soft-focus shots and feel-good rhetoric of this spot, new campaign-finance laws have allowed Romney’s supporters to run a bruising, negative ad campaign against his rivals without putting his name on it. Restore Our Future, a Romney-backing super PAC, has spent $2.8 million in Iowa and is closing with this ad, driving the last nail into Newt Gingrich’s candidacy.

Ron Paul

What it says: “America is in trouble. Washington is a disgrace. Government has become too big; it’s overtaxing, overspending. We need to change direction. We really need change. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. This election is about trust,” say a series of earnest supporters before a few news clips ding Romney and Gingrich. “Ron Paul is the one we’ve been looking for,” one supporter concludes.

What it means: Don’t be afraid and don’t settle; it’s O.K. to vote for the eccentric 76-year-old with the anti-Fed fetish. He’s been unimpeachable where the other candidates have been shifty, straightforward where they’ve been duplicitous. Drastic times call for drastic measures. He can win. You can trust him. We all do.

How many people will see it*: A lot. Paul’s spent $2.8 million on the Iowa airwaves so far, and his campaign is relying on a strong finish there. There’s every indication he’ll get one — he’s been in the lead or not far off it in every poll in recent weeks — but the final days are no time to rest on his laurels. Being eclipsed by Romney and Santorum on Tuesday would be a big disappointment.

Bonus point: There was another candidate who rode into Iowa with an army of ardent young volunteers and an excellent organization, telling people that “we really need change” and that he was “the one.” His victory propelled him to the nomination. It’s unlikely Paul will do the same, but at this point in 2008, there were still plenty of skeptics of one Barack Hussein Obama.

Rick Santorum

What it says: “Who has the best chance to beat Obama? Rick Santorum,” the peppy narrator says to shots of the candidate campaigning and cavorting with his family. “A full-spectrum conservative, Rick Santorum is rock solid on values issues, a favorite of the Tea Party … more foreign policy credentials than any candidate … Rick Santorum, a trusted conservative who gives us the best chance to take back America.”

What it means: Virtually no one thinks Rick Santorum has the best chance to beat Obama, but we’re going to try to convince you of that anyway. In case you don’t believe it, here are a bunch of reasons he’s the only real conservative in the race, so you should vote for him anyway. “Full-spectrum” is code for “not squishy on some conservative issues,” as Romney and Gingrich are. For that matter, so is “rock solid on values” and “a favorite of the Tea Party.” One imagines former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman might quibble with the “foreign policy credentials” line, but in Santorum’s universe, which has been strictly bounded by Iowa’s borders these past few months, Huntsman isn’t even really a candidate. Even in that world, few people believe Santorum is the most electable, though, so there’s one last mention in case you forgot.

How many people will see it*: Not so many. As of a few days ago, Santorum’s campaign had spent a measly $30,000 on TV ads in Iowa. He’s been campaigning the old-fashioned way — you know, actually meeting people — to great effect. And there’s a chance that his late surge could deliver him enough cash to get his message out on the airwaves, but it might be a little late for that.

Bonus point: This ad is cut from most of the the same footage Santorum used in his epically surreal pop-up video VH1 nostalgia ad, which is well worth the click.

Newt Gingrich

What it says: It’s a montage of Gingrich explaining his Big Ideas in debates. “Nothing will turn America around more than election night when Barack Obama loses decisively,” he says.

What it means: Gingrich will stay positive, even if it costs him a shot at the nomination. He’s up there onstage, with chief rival Mitt Romney smiling and nodding next to him, and he’s whaling on President Obama. This screams “glad to be on the team” and doesn’t really make a clear case for someone to vote for Gingrich over the other candidates at all. But it might make Republicans feel warm and fuzzy about Gingrich again.

How many people will see it*: Some. Gingrich has spent some $980,000 on the Iowa airwaves so far, and up until a week or so ago, things were going O.K. But the torrent of negative ads run against him by Romney, Rick Perry et al. have taken their toll, and Gingrich really needed an aggressive pushback campaign if he hoped to share in the victory on Tuesday. It doesn’t look like either will happen.

Bonus point: Gingrich may have changed his mind about staying positive a little too late. Over the weekend in Iowa, he went hard after Romney for his evolution on abortion. But no Hawkeye ad campaign will come of it.

Rick Perry

What it says: “I’m honored to have your support on January the 3rd,” Perry says to the camera after rehashing bullet points from his mostly calamitous candidacy — Texas job growth, Obama’s “war on religion,” part-time Congress. “I’m Rick Perry, an outsider who will overhaul Washington.”

What it means: Look at me, I came to Iowa. On paper, I’m exactly the kind of candidate you want to vote for — conservative governor, speaks Evangelicals’ language, is skeptical of Washington. I even know what day the caucus is. Rick Perry 2012: seriously, why not?

How many people will see it*: A whole lot. Perry’s never really been able to clear the 10% hump in the past month of Iowa polling, but it’s not for lack of trying. The Texas governor has the flooded the airwaves with $4.3 million worth of ad time in total. And he’s actually spent enough to run two closing arguments: this positive one and a negative spot featuring a cartoon fox that’s supposed to represent Santorum, Bachmann, Paul and Gingrich, and all 10 seconds of usable Perry debate footage in existence. Iowa might not be Perry’s Alamo — he has the money to soldier on — but a decent finish could resurrect his campaign. Paid media is the best weapon he’s got at present.

Bonus point: The previous Perry ad to invoke Obama’s “war on religion” rubbed denizens of the Internet the wrong way; they rewarded him with a record-setting 730,000 dislikes on YouTube (along with 24,000 likes). After that, his campaign disabled that feature on his uploaded ads. Until now. His closing spot has 111 likes and 250 dislikes so far.

Michele Bachmann

What it says: “Born and raised in Iowa, only one candidate has been a consistent conservative fighter,” the narrator says before listing her various efforts to undo the Obama agenda. “One of our own. Michele Bachmann for President.”

What it means: “One of our own” has a great double meaning — it’s both a literal appeal for caucusgoers to help a lady out and vote for a fellow Iowan, and it implies that Romney, Paul et al. aren’t of the conservative Evangelical ilk with whom Bachmann identifies.

How many people will see it*: Few. Bachmann has spent a total of $180,000 on Iowa TV, but much of it was early on. Her campaign’s financial woes have kept her off the air for the much of the final stretch, and it’s unlikely that this spot will be the last thing caucusgoers see before braving the cold Tuesday night. The winner of August’s Ames straw poll seems destined for a finish at the back of the pack.

Bonus point: Quotation marks usually denote that someone else has said something, but I can’t find any evidence that anybody other than Bachmann herself has ever referred to her as America’s “Iron Lady.” I guess it’s understandable. Meryl Streep always gets the Oscar nomination, right?

*Estimates based on recent trends in Iowa TV spending by each campaign, not specific ad-buy information. This may underestimate or overestimate the reach of an ad.

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