By Kristin Jensen and Jonathan D. Salant
(c) 2011, Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — Even as experts predict that the 2012 presidential race will be
the most expensive in history, a funny thing is happening on the way to the
Republican nomination: It’s becoming one of the cheapest primary season in a
more than a decade.
The top nine Republican candidates spent $53 million through September,
compared with $132 million spent at the same time four years ago. The sum is
even lower than totals reported during the same period in the 2004 and 2000
primaries , when most candidates still were abiding by campaign spending limits
in order to receive public matching money.
In the crowded Democratic primary in 2004, the candidates had spent $58
million through Sept. 30, 2003. Four years prior, a primary field of ten
Republican candidates had spent $68 million in the first three quarters of
One major difference is a profusion of televised debates — 11 so far —
negating the need for costly commercials.
“The debates and the daily drama of the Republican presidential primary
are the new TV,” said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign
Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va.
The spending slump is having an effect on the campaign trail. Advertising in
the first two states to hold contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, has plummeted 75
percent. And candidates who have barely registered in what’s sometimes called
“the money primary” are vaulting into the lead.
Republicans Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, once footnotes in the race, have
both taken recent turns jn polling leads. As of Sept. 30, Gingrich was $1.2
million in debt and Cain had $658,779 in cash after accounting for his bills to
“Money is not the coin of the realm this time,” said Alex Vogel, a
Republican strategist and lobbyist not aligned with any of the candidates.
“They’re not really being judged on the money the way we used to judge
people on the money.”
Debates have played a more prominent role this year, and the candidates have
increasingly recognized the limits of early political spending such as
advertising, Vogel said. There’s also been less time to collect cash because
fundraising started months later in the primary season than usual and many
donors haven’t yet picked a candidate.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney didn’t announce his candidacy
until June 2; four years ago, he opened his campaign’s doors in January 2007,
and his first event on Jan. 9, 2007, featured 400 volunteers making fundraising
phone calls that generated $6.5 million in pledged donations.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker from Georgia, may be the biggest
beneficiary of the new environment. Almost written off in June as he faced
mounting campaign debt and mass resignations of aides, Gingrich trudged on with
a shoestring budget and attracted attention in a series of nationally televised
debates. He led in four polls last month, having spent just $2.5 million on his
campaign through Sept. 30.
“Newt’s resurgence has proved that you can get by on very little money
for a long time,” Vogel said.
Romney, the long-time front-runner, spent $18 million through September.
That’s compared with almost $54 million he spent on a failed run for the nomination
in the same period in 2007 — more than the top nine candidates combined in
“Every day of debates, every day of drama, is a day when Romney doesn’t
need to advertise in Iowa,” Goldstein said.
The Republican candidates and their allied political action committees spent
$2.5 million on television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire through Nov. 27,
according to Goldstein’s data. That’s compared with $10 million spent by the
candidates alone through Nov. 27, 2007.
Romney spent $3.7 million in Iowa and $3.2 million in New Hampshire on
political commercials four years ago. This time, he’d spent nothing in Iowa and
$56,620 in New Hampshire through Nov. 27, Goldstein’s figures show.
Most of the candidates’ other spending goes toward travel, staff salaries,
rent, printing and other support operations. Romney spent $1.2 million on
payroll in the third quarter of 2011, compared with more than $2 million in the
same period of 2007, Federal Election Commission data shows. He paid out more
than $600,000 for get-out-the-vote consulting in 2007, compared with $112,000
for “field consulting” in 2011.
“The Romney campaign is actually better organized in their ground game
than four years ago, but they have done it with fewer resources and they have
spent their money wisely,” said former New Hampshire Republican Chairman
Steve Duprey, who is not affiliated with a candidate. “The other camps are
less well organized I think primarily because of scarce resources.”
One of the few candidates bucking the trend is Texas Rep. Ron Paul. He’s
spent $820,610 on ads in New Hampshire and Iowa, more than anyone else. And
through September, his campaign had spent a total of $9.1 million, compared
with $2.8 million in the same period during his last bid for the nomination.
The dynamics will change as the race moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire,
where more of a premium is placed on face-to-face contact, Goldstein said.
Indeed, Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive
Politics in Washington, has predicted that spending on the 2012 elections will
reach a record $6 billion.
“The fact that we’ve seen much less advertising this year than last
says absolutely nothing about what’s going to be a huge television war in
2012,” Goldstein said.