Political fortunes may still be fuzzy after the Iowa caucuses, but one thing is clear: the candidates spent an unprecedented amount on advertising. Iowan Bruce Gronbeck, professor of political rhetoric and media, has been watching the ads. He explains what caucus goers and the candidates got for the money.
BOB GARFIELD: In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, the political forecast may still be fuzzy but the financials tell a clearer story. In the final weeks of the campaigning, the candidates spent three times as much as in 2004 on TV and Internet advertising.
Professor Bruce Gronbeck, who teaches television and political rhetoric at the University of Iowa, has been watching that massive ad buy. He says that the record-breaking spending in Iowa is due to the compressed primary schedule. As more states scheduled votes closer and closer together, there was mounting pressure to get a running start in Iowa, a challenge that candidates confronted by inundating the state with ads for almost a year. BRUCE GRONBECK: So I think the strategy of moving places like California, New York, Illinois, Florida and Michigan forward caused Iowans to experience just an awful lot [LAUGHS] more ads than they ever have. BOB GARFIELD: One thing I've noticed is an almost total absence of attack ads. It’s been pretty gentle, hasn't it? BRUCE GRONBECK: Yeah, but that’s, I think, typical of the early caucuses and primaries. The Ronald Reagan 11th commandment of not speaking ill of one’s brother in the party, it’s kind of there. And it’s especially true in Iowa.
When Pat Buchanan got really nasty on immigration issues in '96, he went sliding down the polls. Steve Forbes even tried relatively quiet comparison ads between himself and Bob Dole, but he too made no progress whatsoever with those ads.
Iowans don't especially like the negative attack ads. Even in the senatorial races, when they've gotten nasty, you tend to have people even pull out of the electorate and decide not to participate. BOB GARFIELD: Well, then how has the public responded, for example, to Mitt Romney’s commercial comparing his record on immigration to Mike Huckabee’s which, you know, makes him seem like he’s opening the floodgates to Mexico and points south? BRUCE GRONBECK: I think Romney suffered for it. And, of course, he took an even harder punch from Huckabee and the rest of the candidates when he went after John McCain. BOB GARFIELD: What about the 527s, the groups outside of official campaigns, who are free to spend money on supposed issue advertising but also give rise to things like the Swift-Boating of John Kerry? Have they been active? BRUCE GRONBECK: They have been active. The one we've seen the most is the Alliance for a New America, which has been supporting John Edwards by going after his opponents. The others have asked him to disavow the group and he says, well, I can't call them. That would be illegal for me in a political campaign.
Governor Huckabee has been beaten on by the Club for Growth, a group that’s going after his tax policies. And Obama insists that he’s had 3.2 million dollars’ worth of ads attacking him.
Anyway, they're big figures. They came in in the late fall, in November, December, and they're getting their knives sharpened. BOB GARFIELD: Now, what about the Internet? This was supposed to be the year when the Internet began to take over television’s traditional impact in these elections, but more money has been spent on Des Moines TV airtime [LAUGHS] than ever before in history. How influential has Internet advertising been, to your mind? BRUCE GRONBECK: Well, of course, the Internet started long before anything on television, even before candidates got themselves declared. It began last fall with the — on the positive side, with the by now famous Obama girl singing her love to Barack Obama, and that – I checked this morning – had 4.6 million hits. It gets watched a lot.
The Hillary 1984, the attack on Hillary using the old Mac ad by putting her in the place of Big Brother, has had almost as many hits, 4.5 million. And, of course, then just the whole world of blogs – anytime Ron Paul was mentioned anywhere, an army of bloggers would sit and kick it on to another source, to another blog or to one of the news organizations so that he'd get a phenomenal number of hits for anything that he said anywhere. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm speaking to you on Thursday when the caucuses take place. And we're not talking about primaries, where someone just goes in and yanks a lever. People meet in gymnasiums and so forth and actually discuss candidates and so forth.
You’re leading one of these caucuses this evening. Will these subjects come up about websites and 527 attacks and so forth? BRUCE GRONBECK: What you'll see, I think, most interestingly in the talk is not necessarily identifying a particular medium, but you'll hear phrases from the ads. You know, the talk of Hillary as the experienced candidate, the Obama theme throughout 2007 of faith and hope and the Edwards populist messages of attacking large powerful interests in the country, those will be in those conversations. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one last thing. Historically, has there been any correlation between the amount of money spent on TV by a candidate and how well he or she has fared in the caucuses? BRUCE GRONBECK: It’s very much a mixed bag, because big spenders – for example, Steve Forbes in 1996 – went absolutely nowhere. It’s mixed enough so that I don't think there are any rules.
I think that heavy spending, as I say, in many ways is, one, being aimed at the media, of course, so that they will report these kinds of things and circulate them to other states; secondly, to allow candidates to actually build their ads here and have them in the can because they're going to have to blitz those large states in a hurry. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Professor. Thank you very much. BRUCE GRONBECK: It’s been a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Bruce Gronbeck teaches television and political rhetoric at the University of Iowa.