Even as experts predict that the 2012 presidential race will be the most expensive in U.S. history, a funny thing is happening on the way to the Republican nomination: It’s becoming one of the cheapest primaries 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 earlier, a primary field of 10 Republican candidates had spent $68 million in the first three quarters of 1999.
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, Virginia.
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.
Debtors and Front-Runners
Republicans Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, once footnotes in the race, have both taken recent turns in 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 pay.
“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.”
The debates have played a more prominent role this year, and candidates have increasingly recognized the limits of early political spending such as advertising, Vogel said. There has 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 the 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 compares 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 2011.
“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. In the current race, he spent nothing in Iowa and $56,620 in New Hampshire through Nov. 27, Goldstein’s figures show.
Romney today announced his first ad in Iowa, which promotes his credentials as a “conservative businessman” and talks about the need to cut spending.
“Mitt Romney has always said that he would campaign and compete in Iowa,” said Andrea Saul, a campaign spokeswoman. “He looks forward to participating in the two upcoming Iowa debates. Going on television is just another tool in getting Mitt Romney’s message out that Barack Obama has failed as a president, and that he is the best choice to grow the economy, cut spending and create jobs.”
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 show. He paid 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 isn’t affiliated with a candidate. “The other camps are less well organized, I think, primarily because of scarce resources.”
Paul Bucks Trend
One of the few candidates bucking the trend is U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas. He has 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.
Paul was tied for fourth place with Texas Governor Rick Perry in a Nov. 14-20 Quinnipiac University poll of registered Republicans nationally. Gingrich led, followed by Romney and Cain, a former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza.
Perry spent $600,570 on ads in Iowa and $45,750 in New Hampshire through Nov. 27. He spent $2.1 million altogether for his campaign through September, according to FEC records. Gingrich hasn’t run any ads in the two early states; Cain also has avoided airing ads while spending $4 million.
To some extent, the change in focus in this year’s primary may be because Romney has been the front-runner for so long and few people doubt his fundraising ability, Vogel said.
“You have one candidate that everyone knows can raise the money and a bunch of other candidates competing to be the anti- that person,” Vogel said.
Most new political action committees that are officially independent and can take unlimited contributions to help a candidate won’t report spending until January. Their ad spending accounted for less than $700,000 of the total $2.5 million through Nov. 27.
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.