A record $74.6 million was plowed into TV advertising in Iowa during the 2012 presidential campaign, according to an analysis of spending data by a consortium of Iowa newspapers.
Over the 32-week period from March 26 through Nov. 6, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as a lineup of super PACs and advocacy groups poured so much money into TV ads that it amounted to $47.16 for every Iowan who voted in the presidential contest.
The figures come from the final phase of a months-long initiative by the newspapers, including the Quad-City Times, to tally all the spending on TV ads for the 2012 presidential campaign.
It wasn’t just the amount of spending that was eye-popping. The sheer number of ads was mind-numbing, too.
In all, 269,499 ads were purchased in the state. And although not all were 30-second spots, the vast majority were. By that measure, an Iowan could actually watch each and every one of the ads back to back — if they had at least 93 days free days to do so.
The last five weeks of advertising was particularly heavy.
A surge in spending by Romney and his allies turned what had been a fairly even spending battle between the two sides through the end of September into a $42.6 million-to-$32 million overall advantage for the Republicans.
In the last five weeks alone, Romney and his allies bought $21.5 million in ads in the state. Obama and his supporters bought $11.9 million.
Obama eventually won Iowa by a nearly 92,000-vote margin, 52 percent to 46 percent. He also was the biggest ad spender overall, doling out $27.8 million, according to the tally. Romney spent $14.3 million.
The latest figures show how much Romney’s campaign, as well as his allies, concentrated their TV ad spending in the state during the last five weeks of the campaign.
By contrast, the Obama campaign, while not taking its foot off the pedal in the closing weeks, devoted more of its ad spending to earlier months.
“It was a fundamental difference in strategy with paid media coupled with the ground game,” said Erin Seidler, who was the Obama campaign’s Iowa representative.
She said the campaign’s senior level decided on persuading voters about the president’s record — and targeting Romney — in March, April and the early summer months.
“We chose to do that at a time when there wasn’t much competition,” she said.
Romney ramped up his ad spending later. In the last five weeks, the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign and his supporters essentially matched what they had spent from late March to the end of September.
“The focus was on trying to reach those undecided voters, who we thought would make their decisions in the last weeks of October,” said Brian Kennedy, who chaired Romney’s effort in Iowa.
The pro-Romney super PACs and advocacy groups were a big factor late in the game. Two Karl Rove-founded groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, led the way, pumping $8.4 million into the state in the last five weeks, far exceeding what they had previously spent.
Romney spent $6.5 million on his own during the period.
A pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, also dove in with $2.7 million in spending in the last five weeks, more than doubling what it previously spent in the state. But it wasn’t as much as the pro-Romney groups, which served to equalize, then surpass, the head-to-head spending advantage Obama had maintained over Romney. Obama’s campaign itself spent $8.9 million in the last five weeks.
The Des Moines and Quad-City markets were the focus of the last five weeks, with the two markets making up more than half the spending in the state. A total of $8.9 million was spent on 19,397 ads in the Quad-Cities during that time, bringing the overall total for the campaign to $20.8 million. That money paid for 45,047 ads overall.
The unprecedented amount of spending in the campaign, especially by super PACs and advocacy groups, has led to post-election soul searching.
Democrats and even some Republicans, in retrospect, have questioned the efficacy of the super PAC and advocacy group efforts on the right, if not calling them an outright failure.
Kennedy said he would like to have seen some of that money devoted to identifying and turning out voters.
“I’m not sure the next television commercial made a big difference,” he said. “I just don’t know that running 200 ads is any different than 150 ads.”
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The super PACs, he said, were much more influential in the GOP primary.
But Steve Grubbs, president of Victory Enterprises Inc. and a former state GOP chair, said the effort wasn’t a waste. Without it, he thinks, Republicans might have fared worse at the Statehouse. The paid media, he said, had an effect on the presidential race, and that filtered into other races.
“The top of the ticket is what drives everything below it,” he said.
It’s too early to tell what 2016 will look like in terms of television ad spending. Digital media is an important and growing part of the equation. And, of course, Iowa must remain a battleground state in the general election.
Still, Grubbs said, “I don’t think the money’s going away.”
About this report
This exclusive report is the result of a collaboration by 10 news organizations located in television broadcast markets serving Iowa.
A total of 16 reporters visited the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox network affiliates in those markets and inspected campaign advertising records that Federal Communications Commission rules require broadcasters to keep on file and make available to the public. Reporters also checked the records for the primary cable television provider in each market. Satellite networks such as Dish and DirecTV, as well as secondary cable providers, were not included.
The contracts detail the agreements by presidential campaigns and political action committees to purchase time when advertising will be aired. Information gathered included the name of the committee making the purchase, the dates the ad spots began airing and ended, the number of spots included in each purchase and the gross amount spent by the political committee.
The news organizations examined 3,632 contracts to air political advertising on behalf of the presidential campaigns beginning in late March and continuing through election day Nov. 6.
Each newspaper submitted the data it gathered to The Des Moines Register, which assembled the statewide database, offered analysis and returned the data to partner newspapers for use in compiling their own news stories.
Partner news organizations and reporters gathering the data include: Burlington Hawk Eye, Christinia Crippes; Cedar Rapids Gazette, Gregg Hennigan; The Des Moines Register, William Petroski and Christopher Pratt; Omaha World-Herald, Roseann Moring and Maggie O’Brien; Ottumwa Courier, Chelsea Davis; Quad-City Times, Ed Tibbetts; Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin. Heather Carlson and Mike Dougherty; Sioux City Journal, Chris Coates, Nick Hytrek, Lauren Mills, Julie Hamann; Sioux Falls Argus Leader, David Montgomery; Waterloo Courier, Jonathan Ericson.