DES MOINES — In the final five weeks of the presidential campaign, the Mitt Romney coalition nearly doubled what the Barack Obama coalition spent on TV advertising in Iowa — only to lose the state by nearly 6 percentage points, which was double Obama's national victory.
Republican Romney spent more than $3 million in the Council Bluffs-Omaha market during the final weeks while President Obama aired only $144,000 in ads there.
Together, the campaigns and their allies averaged nearly $1 million a day in new TV spending in swing-state Iowa from Oct. 1 to Election Day. Several polls in the frenzied final weeks had shown a neck-and-neck battle in Iowa.
Romney and the outside groups backing him spent $21.5 million in the final five weeks, essentially matching their total spending in the preceding six months, according to a Des Moines Register analysis of TV station records.
That's nearly double what Obama and his Democratic forces spent in Iowa the last five weeks. Before the October blitz, the two candidates and their allies had spent roughly the same amount, according to research gathered by the Register and nine other news organizations that partnered to review data on Iowa broadcast television markets and major cable providers.
Romney's loss despite the full-throated air war has political watchers second-guessing what backfired with the GOP media-buying effort in Iowa.
“Romney depended too heavily on TV expenditures while Obama balanced TV with sophisticated voter contact and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “I doubt future campaigns make the same mistake. I doubt future donors allow the same mistake to be made.”
Although Romney and his allies spent more, the Obama coalition out-advertised them.
About 13,000 more pro-Obama TV ads ran in Iowa than pro-Romney ads during the final weeks.
“The Obama ads were successful because of the message, timing and targeting of the advertising,” said Obama's Iowa campaign director, Brad Anderson.
Ads focused on the middle class began ramping up in April and targeted voters on nontraditional cable networks, he said.
Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn noted that by late spring, Romney's primary election tanks were running on fumes, but Romney couldn't spend general election dollars until he was officially nominated at the national convention in late August.
“No amount of armchair quarterbacking is going to put primary dollars in Mitt Romney's camp that didn't exist at the time,” Strawn said. “You have to make decisions with the resources you have.”
Between late March, when general election spending began to heat up, and Nov. 6, the candidates and their allies wrote checks for $74.6 million in TV advertising. In the final five weeks alone, in the battle for Iowa's six Electoral College votes, they spent $33.3 million.
An Iowa Poll in late September found that 13 percent of likely voters could still be persuaded to vote for another candidate, didn't have a top choice or weren't sure. That's 206,000 of the eventual 1.58 million Iowa voters. So in the final five weeks, the two campaigns and their allies combined spent an average of $162 each on these still-persuadable voters.
Television advertising makes up the biggest portion of any campaign's spending.
In the final five weeks, Romney forces outspent their Obama counterparts in all eight broadcast markets serving Iowa.
In the Omaha-Council Bluffs market, television viewers saw more than 6,500 ads during that period. Those ads cost one-tenth of all the presidential ad spending in Iowa. Romney and his supporters spent nearly seven times as much as the incumbent.
Though Romney did not prevail in Iowa, that might have helped him in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District. Obama had won the Omaha-based district in 2008.
Looking at spending by Romney and his allies over the full seven months the Register examined, his team spent most in the Davenport market.
Although Romney won Pottawattamie County, the biggest county in the Council Bluffs market, by 5 points, “I'm not sure how they could justify spending that much in Council Bluffs,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Des Moines and veteran of the 2008 Obama campaign. “The numbers are startling. I think Romney was fleeced by his team.”
Strawn said the Romney campaign had plenty of resources and said it was a good idea to try to drive up margins in Council Bluffs, to offset Democratic areas.
The Romney coalition waited until the end to flood the Iowa airwaves. By then, Obama had already wrapped up an effort to brand his opponent as untrustworthy and caring only about the wealthiest, strategists said.
“Both sides would probably agree that focusing our summer television advertising on Gov. Romney's record at Bain Capital was an effective way to inform voters about his record in a clutter-free advertising environment,” said Anderson, Obama's Iowa director. “By October, the airwaves were a mess.”
If Romney had defined himself earlier, he might have won, strategists said.
“Romney's suddenly improved poll standing after the first debate suggests that if his campaign had moved to round out his profile earlier, the impact of these attacks may have been blunted, possibly to an outcome-altering effect,” wrote Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media's CMAG, which analyzes TV advertising.
“Yet even with scarcely any positive messaging, Romney nearly won,” she said in a blog post for Ad Age.
Nationally, Romney lost by about 3.5 million votes out of 122 million votes cast for the top two candidates, for a 2.9 percent margin. In Iowa, he lost by about 92,000 out of 1.6 million votes, or 5.8 percent.
Obama ran more ads and spent less money than Romney.
“It's because (the Obama campaign) had a sophisticated targeting system called 'the optimizer,' which allowed them to buy less-expensive ads that still reached their target audience,” said Link, the Iowa Democratic strategist. “The Romney campaign simply tried to run more ads during the same expensive shows, getting high repetition at a very high price.”
The Romney coalition wasn't as cost-efficient, agreed Bill Burton, co-founder of the pro-Obama super political action committee Priorities USA and a former deputy White House press secretary.
Looking at spending by the campaigns themselves, Obama outspent Romney from March through Election Day by about 2 to 1 — $27.8 million to $14.3 million. But Romney garnered so much support by outside groups such as super PACs that overall spending on his behalf topped spending by Obama and his allies by more than $10 million, $42.6 million versus $32 million.
A great deal of research will be conducted on the effectiveness of super PAC ads, Sabato said.
“Some in the Romney campaign (and various Senate campaigns) are insisting that the super PAC ads were often unhelpful, and complicated their message delivery. Well, maybe. It could just be another layer of excuse-making. Or it may prove true,” Sabato said.
Obama's message in Iowa TV ads that he was fighting for the middle class helped secure victory in the state, strategists said.
“It's important to remember,” Anderson said, “that our ads focused on the middle class throughout the entire campaign, and it wasn't until after the first debate that Gov. Romney began heavily focusing his messaging on the middle class.”
Ask Iowans whether the political ads were effective and they're likely to say something else influenced them more.
First-time voter Marie Rimmer, 27, a child care provider in Des Moines, said she saw ads bashing Romney for his 47 percent comment and ads praising Obama for saving the auto industry and killing Osama bin Laden.
But more powerful to her were the multiple visits from Obama campaign volunteers.
“They kept coming to my house and I decided 'Why not?' Why not get into the issues that are important to me?” she said.
When an Obama worker knocked on her door on election eve, he took her marked absentee ballot and said he would turn it in for her. And like that, her vote was cast. “I was, like, 'Oh, my God, did I really just do that?' I was so excited,” she said.
Romney's criticisms of food stamps and Planned Parenthood stirred Rimmer to action.
The only specific ad that Wells Fargo employee Brian Kent, 33, of Grimes, could recall was an Obama ad that criticized Bain Capital.
But it didn't sway him against voting for Romney, he said.
About this report
This exclusive report is the result of a collaboration by 10 news organizations in television broadcast markets that serve Iowa.
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 make available. They also checked 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.
The news organizations examined 3,632 contracts from late March through Election Day, Nov. 6. The Des Moines Register assembled the statewide database, offered analysis and returned the data set to partner newspapers.
Reporters who gathered the data for this project were:
Burlington Hawk Eye, Christinia Crippes;
Cedar Rapids Gazette, Gregg Hennigan and James Q. Lynch;
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