Congratulations to Mitt Romney on his narrow win in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses. But don't give the former Massachusetts governor all the credit; after all, he couldn't have done it without a supporting cast of collapse-prone opponents, and one very valuable ally.
The Iowa caucuses, more than any single contest in 2010, will mark the arrival of the super PAC as a potent, and likely lasting, political weapon. Restore Our Future, the super PAC that has run millions of dollars in television advertisements on Romney's behalf, deserves an Oscar for the role it played in Iowa.
After all, Romney's ceiling -- the peak of his support -- appeared lower than most other candidates. Through dozens of public opinion polls conducted in 2011, Romney reached higher than the 25 percent of the vote he received on Tuesday just twice, once in July and once in early October. On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann all reached 30 percent in polls at some point during the year.
The public polling painted a clear picture: In Iowa, Romney couldn't rise above a certain point. A Romney win could only happen if everyone else fell below a certain point.
Gingrich happened to be the biggest threat to Romney's nomination. The former House speaker, who has maintained friendly relations with the rest of the field and performed well in early debates, shot to the front of the pack in November.
That's when Restore Our Future went to work. Throughout November, a review of television ad spending data shows, Romney's friends spent nearly $2.7 million on spots that brought Gingrich's heavy baggage to the Iowa fore. The PAC spent a good deal of that money on more expensive minute-long advertisements -- the better to convey the point, according to one strategist affiliated with the group, that there was a lot of baggage to bring up.
Gingrich, whose campaign never had the resources to offer an adequate response, was forced to claim that he was committed to staying positive. Unfortunately for Gingrich, the moral high ground isn't much good in politics; his poll numbers began plummeting as Restore Our Future's ads started in heavy rotation.
If there's a single lesson any future campaign can take away from the Iowa caucuses, it is this simple warning: Beware the negative advertisement. Gingrich let the ads run unanswered; he finished in fourth place, far off the leader's pace. That's not a mistake President Obama's team plans to repeat.
"When you can call out this sort of secret air force and have them carpetbomb relentlessly ... that's a concern," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday. "The prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars raining down on us is not a prospect that I relish."
The rest of the Republican field can expect more of the same from Romney's well-funded super PAC. Restore Our Future has already run an advertisement blasting both Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in South Carolina. That ad came down Wednesday night in favor of a positive pro-Romney message -- a sign that the group is trying to decide which candidate to hit next.
Super PACs backing various presidential candidates have struggled to find their niche this year. Make Us Great Again, a PAC that backs Perry, has largely stuck to positive messages to introduce him to unfamiliar electorates. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum only spent $30,000 on Iowa ads, but the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund dumped $534,000 into Iowa broadcast television on exclusively positive spots.
Instead, look to Restore Our Future to serve as the model for future super PAC activity. They played the political equivalent of a free safety, roving through Iowa and South Carolina, looking for someone to hit. And, with Gingrich plummeting to fourth place and Perry stuck at the back of the pack, that was the most effective role to play.
All that's left is for the attacked campaign to figure out a way to respond to a group with no official connection to their opponents.
Does anybody really watch The Weather Channel? Perry's campaign apparently thought so: He spent more than $40,000 to advertise amid cold snaps and heat waves this year, according to data provided by NCC Media, which tracks cable television spending.
Perry, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas all broke ground this year by reaching out to Republican voters in Iowa beyond simply the fertile, if packed, Fox News field. All three candidates spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to reach regular Republican voters when they weren't thinking about the news, said Tim Kay, NCC Media's political director.
Gingrich and Paul bought extensive advertising during bowl games late in December, the data show. Gingrich bought $26,000 in spots on ESPN and ESPN2 over the week beginning Dec. 26, while Paul spent more than $15,000 on the sports networks that week. Both Iowa and Iowa State Universities played in bowl games on Dec. 30.
Perry, meanwhile, spread his ad dollars around 17 different Iowa cable channels, reaching voters watching stations as diverse as HGTV, the Food Network, Lifetime, The History Channel and the Big Ten Network. Both Paul and Perry started spending their money on early ads, and both were regularly broadcasting messages to cable viewers by late October.
Outside groups spent their own big bucks on cable ads this year, and even with the myriad choices, Gingrich couldn't hide. The pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC ran advertisements on every cable channel that also featured a Gingrich spot.
While some Republican candidates are diversifying, the vast majority of cable spending in a GOP primary still happens on Fox News. Republican candidates spent more than $1.3 million running ads on Fox in Iowa alone, more than half of the $2.4 million candidates spent in Iowa as a whole.
Romney and Bachmann both stuck exclusively with Fox News for their ad buys. Romney spent about $190,000 on Fox News ads, while Bachmann spent about $92,000 on her own ads.
"In a Republican primary, Fox News is the network of choice, because it does appeal to a certain audience," Kay said. But, he added, Gingrich, Paul and Perry won't be alone on the airwaves for long. "It's becoming more of a trend to buy more than just Fox News."
Bachmann, meanwhile, gets credit for running the very first ads of the cycle in Iowa: She spent about $4,000 to run a series of advertisements on Fox News during the week of July 4, the NCC data show.