DES MOINES | Both presidential campaigns have unleashed TV ad barrages in their rival’s traditional strongholds as they try to gain the upper hand in the message-battered battleground state of Iowa.
President Barack Obama has outspent Republican ex-CEO Mitt Romney in the heavily Republican Council Bluffs television market and in the GOP-leaning Sioux City area, a Des Moines Register analysis of ad spending shows.
And Romney has done more advertising than the president in the Quad Cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets -- all consistently Democratic territories.
“Clearly, neither campaign is ceding an inch of ground,” said GOP strategist Robert Haus. “This cycle, Iowa isn’t a red or blue state. It’s a black-and-blue state from all the negative advertising.”
With a shrinking pool of undecided voters across the country, Iowans have been treated to an unprecedented $30 million TV ad war, and it’s about as pretty as a knife fight in a phone booth, as one strategist put it. Since April, 25,870 ad spots worth nearly $2.9 million have aired in the Sioux City market, the analysis shows.
Neither side is being outshouted, according to a review of television stations’ public records conducted by the Register and a partnership of eight other news organizations. Although Obama had an early lead, the ad spending from the start of the advertising rush to the start of the convention season in Iowa TV markets on behalf of Romney edges the spending on behalf of Obama.
What did 97,464 commercials from the campaigns and other groups buy in Iowa? A stalemate in a race that’s stuck in the mud(slinging).
In a state Obama won by nearly 10 points four years ago, he holds a razor-thin lead of 2.3 percentage points, a Real Clear Politics average of polling shows.
As each candidate clings to a durable base of support, the exhaustive chase for undecided voters continues.
Political strategists calculate that each side will nail down 48 percent of voters, while 61,746 voters -- equal to 4 percent of the 2008 turnout -- will decide the race. The ad dollar shower on each of those voters from April through August has been about $480, enough to buy each one a new recliner on which to watch their TVs.
Iowa at times feels as if it’s home to a never-ending campaign, but the 2012 cycle draws to a close in 44 days. Both sides are channeling the message that they can’t win the White House without the six electoral votes here.
“It looks like Iowa,” said Democratic strategist John Anzalone, “is both the prom queen and head cheerleader of the battleground states.”
Obama 'outspent 2 to 1?' Not in Iowa
Obama wrote in an Aug. 21 fundraising letter to supporters: “I just got back from Iowa, where we are being outspent 2 to 1 on the air.”
Not the case with TV spending.
Looking at ad buys by the campaigns alone, Obama has enjoyed a strongly lopsided advantage this spring and summer in Iowa, dishing out $5 for every $2 that Romney has spent on TV ads.
Obama has invested $13.8 million in Iowa from the beginning of April through roughly the end of August, and Romney $5.7 million. That translated into 36 separate Obama campaign ads and 19 Romney ads in that period.
Mix in groups other than the campaigns, and a small spending advantage shifts to Romney: $15.7 million has been spent on TV ads to help Romney in Iowa compared to $13.9 million to aid Obama. But that’s a ratio of 1.1 to 1, not 2 to 1.
For the general election cycle nationally, Obama has raised more money ($348 million) than Romney ($193 million), and spent more, according to OpenSecrets.org.
The advantage again flips to Romney when groups other than the campaigns are considered. On radio and TV advertising combined, Romney and his allies spent $319 million from March 19 to last week, compared to $287 million by Obama and his allies, according to NBC News data based on a report from the ad-tracking firm SMG/Delta.
In Iowa, Obama started firing in January. If the president hadn’t unleashed his ad bonanza in the wake of the GOP message inoculation of the caucuses, Iowa likely would have tilted dramatically to Romney, strategists on both sides said.
GOP-leaning outside groups then stepped up “out of sheer necessity,” said Haus, a strategist from Urbandale. Until Romney officially became the nominee at the convention, he couldn’t spend the funds his campaign had raised for the general election, or legally access the funds from the Republican committees. As an incumbent, the president didn’t have those restrictions, and could spend his campaign dollars freely.
“When advertising is equal and the choice is left to the people of Iowa, we win,” said Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson. “So when all things are neutral, Iowans gravitate toward Mitt.”
Can you buy Iowa? No, experts say
The broadsides of TV ads result in part from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The ruling untethered campaign finance restrictions, allowing wealthy individuals, corporations and unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to political organizations that are barred from sharing strategies with campaigns.
That’s fattened the bank accounts of so-called super PACs, or political action committees. These outside organizations (excluding the campaigns and each party’s national committees) purchased $8.3 million in TV ads in Iowa since spring, just under a third of total spending.
“If 2012 ushered in the wild west for presidential campaign spending, in Iowa it is high noon at the OK Corral,” Haus said.
The ramped-up spending by outside organizations means more ads from groups that nobody knows much about -- who’s behind them and who sends them money. That has led to a built-in skepticism that makes it harder for their ads to be taken at face value, strategists said.
In Iowa, the caucus experience makes voters accustomed to seeing candidates campaign in person. Conventional wisdom says that, unlike some states, it’s impossible for a presidential campaign to win the race in Iowa almost exclusively through TV advertising. Is this the first cycle where that theory falls apart?
No, said Obama’s top campaign adviser, David Axelrod.
“You still have to do retail campaigning in Iowa. Iowans demand it,” Axelrod said. “These folks get to know the candidates, they see them up close, and that helps to inform their opinion. It also helps insulate them against the caricature of the candidate they’re seeing on their television.”
What areas are the busiest? The big 4
Both sides have spent heavily in the four key Iowa markets: Davenport, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City.
The Davenport area has seen the biggest spending this cycle, but that’s partly because it’s a more expensive TV market than other parts of the state. A total of 16,494 ads were placed in the Quad-Cities area, which overlaps with Illinois, at a cost of $9.2 million. About the same number of spots placed in the Des Moines area cost $8 million.
Television in the Quad-Cities reaches about 15 percent of Iowa voters, as opposed to the Des Moines market, which is closer to 40 percent, said Davenport-based GOP strategist Steve Grubbs.
And who is advertising more to the white, working-class voters in the Mason City, Ottumwa and Burlington areas? Obama. National polls show the president struggling with this voting bloc; Romney strongly leads among those with no college degree, particularly men.
Almost all negative
Most poll respondents nationally say they believe the country is on the wrong track. Americans aren’t happy, and the acerbic ads from both sides work to keep it that way.
The constant stream of ads has not given Iowa voters that final measure of inspiration to give one candidate a clear lead.
“In Obama’s case,” said David Kochel, Romney’s Iowa strategist, “the vitriol in his advertising has done something else: It’s destroyed one of the most carefully crafted political brands -- hope and change -- we’ve ever seen.”
GOP strategist Robert Haus said negative ads are usually countered from the other side with another negative ad. “You tend to get this ‘arms race’ mentality setting in,” he said. “Neither campaign can let up and give the other side a competitive advantage.”
Meanwhile, Iowans have become skilled with the mute button.
Every time a political ad pops on screen, Amy Thompson, a 41-year-old mother from Waukee, ignores it.
“I switch channels. Or I go to the bathroom,” said Thompson, a Democrat who says she isn’t inspired enough to vote on Nov. 6.
Romney backer Cody Hoefert, 35, who was a delegate to the GOP national convention, said he ducks the ads, too.
“No. 1, I don’t trust their accuracy, and No. 2, with DVR, I can fast-forward through them,” he said.