Live in Iowa? Get Ready for Senators Instead of Santa

State's Airwaves Will Be Flooded With Spots From Candidates This Christmas

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WASHINGTON ( -- Christmas has been canceled in Iowa.

Well, not precisely, but the Grinch has definitely swooped into the state in the form of Democrats, Republicans and independents. TV spending on the 2008 presidential campaign is climbing so fast in the Hawkeye State that between now and the Jan. 3 primaries it threatens to overwhelm outlays by holiday-related marketers.
Political ad executives suggest Barack Obama's already high spending is nothing compared to what's coming this December.
Political ad executives suggest Barack Obama's already high spending is nothing compared to what's coming this December. Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

As of Oct. 22, spending in Iowa by four presidential hopefuls alone has reached a combined $8.7 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Already, two candidates -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- each have spent $2.6 million in the state, equivalent to the total Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry heaped on Iowa during 2004 when he won the Democratic presidential nomination. Bill Richardson, with a $1.9 million Iowa outlay, isn't far behind. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton spent only $1.6 million so far, but has been steadily increasing spending.

Daily spending
If those numbers look big, day-to-day spending comparisons are even more dramatic. In 2003, by Oct. 22 the Kerry campaign had spent $469,000, most of it concentrated in the campaign's final three weeks. This year -- with the Iowa caucuses moved forward but 10 weeks still left -- those four candidates alone have each spent three to five times that much.

Why the surge? Political-ad experts cite the especially strong importance of Iowa's caucuses this time around; the need to introduce little-known candidates to voters early; and the lack of campaign-finance restrictions. Strong fundraising and few limits didn't hurt. Not many candidates this time are accepting federal financing, which means they escape caps on spending.

The consultants note that that the large number of states pushing their primaries forward next year has placed a high premium on doing well early and getting momentum. "Iowa has the first caucus and we came into the race with a lower name identification than some of the other candidates," said Tom Reynolds, a Richardson spokesman. "One of the quickest ways to achieve the recognition was through TV advertising." While he cautioned that as a caucus state, Iowa requires "shoe leather" and "old-fashioned retail" organizing to get out the vote, "advertising set the table."

Jenn Psaki, a spokewoman for the Obama campaign, said that the candidate has put a lot of focus on the Iowa since it's adjacent to his home state of Illinois. "One of our biggest priorities is introducing Sen. Obama to voters in Iowa," she said, noting that the campaign also has large numbers of staff in the state.

Christmas money
And if you want to credit one candidate for stealing Christmas, it has to be Mr. Obama. Political ad executives suggest the already high spending is nothing compared to what's coming, due to the fact that the Obama campaign has a lot of money on hand, but still has to break through in the polls.

"Everyone, except the front-runner, will likely be forced to go 'all-in' with their media allocations during November and December, two of the most costly months to buy in order to gain traction," said Marius Penczner, who handled Sen. John Edwards' ads last time and initially this time. "Particularly Barack Obama, since he has the resources to substantially outspend those below him."

So get ready, Iowa, suggests Mr. Penczner: "It's possible that we may see very heavy spending by everyone from Thanksgiving until the end of the year -- maybe at the highest levels in history for a single candidate."

Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS's Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the only thing that could hold back spending in Iowa is availability. Not only are there a large number of candidates storming the state, but, oh, yes, the occasional retailer may try to shoehorn in a holiday spot.

Of course, the heavy spending for the presidential race has to be put in perspective. "It is clear that this is an unusually important election," said National Media partner Alex Castellanos, who does Mr. Romney's ads. "But we will still spend less choosing the leader of the free world at this critical time in our history than on car commercials."
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