What Ad Spending Says About Each GOP Candidate–and Their Success

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Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mitt Romney, has spent $8.9 million on the 2012 Republican presidential primary, more money than any other group. Throughout the fall it held its fire, even as Ron Paul pumped money into ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Rick Perry’s super PAC launched hefty buys in the Hawkeye State and South Carolina. But when Newt Gingrich rocketed to the top of the polls in early December, just as voters began tuning into the race, the pro-Romney group pounced. Beginning the week of Dec. 5, Restore Our Future began buying ads in Iowa to snuff out the Gingrich threat. Under the weight of attacks that questioned everything from Gingrich’s temperament to his consulting arrangement with Freddie Mac, the former Speaker limped to a fourth-place finish in Iowa.

Once it started buying ads, Restore Our Future never stopped. The $153,017 it spent that first week increased to $1.04 million the next, where it stayed relatively level until the week of Jan. 2, when the race shifted to New Hampshire. Romney’s support in the Granite State required less reinforcement, so Restore Our Future’s spending plummeted to $583,299 the week before the New Hampshire primary, before ratcheting back up to $2.1 million the following week. Even more ads — at least $2.58 million worth — will run next week, the last before the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, where Romney hopes to all but sew up the nomination.

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The trajectory of Restore Our Future’s spending is instructive. Examining where and when candidates and allied groups have allocated their advertising resources — and where they’ve opted to pass — offers a revealing peek into how campaigns and their outside backers perceive their respective paths to the nomination. New data acquired by TIME shows how Perry and Paul pinned their presidential hopes on strong starts, as well as how Rick Santorum’s lack of fundraising muscle hampered his late charge in the caucuses. It also reveals how Romney won the New Hampshire primary relatively uncontested, and why he’s likely to coast again in Florida.

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With $4.3 million in ad buys, plus another $1.6 million from his allied super PAC, Perry was the single biggest spender in Iowa. Paul’s campaign checked in second at $2.8 million (though Romney spent more if you tally both his campaign and PAC). Both began buying ads early; Paul’s first, tiny buys came back in August, while Perry was running spots widely by late October. But Perry’s spending has petered off as the candidate’s fortunes have faded, plummeting from a weekly combined high of $1.4 million the week before the caucuses to just $366,000 this week. Paul, by contrast, has slowly gained strength in the polls, giving him the ability to spend heavily in the weeks before the caucuses, where he finished a strong third, and continue funneling cash to New Hampshire, where he was the only candidate apart from Romney and Jon Huntsman to amplify his message by going up on the air.

Santorum’s spending tells a different story. The narrative his campaign has spun is that somehow, after holding 300-odd events across Iowa, caucus-goers finally got wise to the brand of conservatism the candidate was selling. There’s no question his dogged schedule helped, but that’s not what turned things around. Santorum was mired in single digits in mid-December when the Red, White and Blue Fund — a super PAC that backs him — launched a six-figure television ad buy on his behalf. A week later, he was in double digits, lending his campaign a positive narrative that sparked further interest. By caucus night, the group had poured $529,550 dollars in ads touting Santorum’s conservative record to Hawkeye State voters. Foster Friess, the Wyoming investment manager instrumental in stocking the group’s coffers, bounded into Santorum’s caucus night party in Johnston, Iowa, with a broad smile, having spent the past two days traveling with Santorum amid the excitement of the surge Friess helped spark. Now, after holding their fire in New Hampshire — a decision that raises questions about the campaign’s decision to spend so much time on the ground in the Granite State rather than skip ahead — Santorum’s money men are back, announcing a $600,000 ad buy in South Carolina ahead of the pivotal Palmetto State primary, where Santorum hopes to become the conservative movement’s Romney alternative.

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Like Santorum, Huntsman posted up in a single primary state and tried to ride a late surge to an upset victory. When his polls climbed in the final week before New Hampshire, Huntsman pointed to a heavy retail schedule that mirrored Santorum’s Hawkeye State barnstorm. But Huntsman’s campaign narrative, like Santorum’s, largely ignored the role ads played in his rise. Our Destiny, the Huntsman-allied super PAC, spent a shade over $2 million in the Granite State, more than any campaign or group supporting them.

The big losers in New Hampshire this year were the media outlets; the state saw just $5.3 million in broadcast, cable and radio ad buys. By contrast, candidates dumped $16.5 million into Iowa and have already spent at least $9 million in South Carolina, a figure that’s poised to swell as the air assault begins raining down in earnest. Between his campaign and Restore Our Future, Romney alone has sank more money so far into Florida’s Jan. 31 primary — $6.1 million — than the total tab for all the campaigns and their various backers in New Hampshire. The perception that Romney’s lead in New Hampshire was insurmountable appeared to sway competitors into allocating their capital elsewhere.

For Newt Gingrich, that cash will be spent in South Carolina, where he promises to launch the kind of blistering blitzkrieg he endured in Iowa. All across the state, Gingrich lamented Romney’s barrage of negative ads, promising to eschew such tactics because, he said, the American people were tired of the cyncial, consultant-driven campaign model. Gingrich’s promise not to go negative lasted until he had the money to change course. His super PAC, Winning Our Future, has already bought $1.6 million in South Carolina spots and, after reportedly receiving a $5 million infusion from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, signaled its intention to pump in $3.4 million more. If the group’s new, 28-minute documentary-style assault on Romney is any indication, its characterization of the former Bain Capital boss won’t be gentle.

If Romney gets dinged by the air wars in South Carolina, he’s likely to quickly recover in Florida. The state’s size and large number of major media markets make it prohibitively expensive for minor-league outfits to play there. The result? Romney is the only Republican who’s been up on air in the Sunshine State. His competitors can’t hope to beat him if they’re not even playing the game.