A former GOP operative in South Carolina flipped on ESPN’s SportsCenter at 6:15 a.m. earlier this week to start his morning workout. By the time he got off the elliptical machine 45 minutes later, he had seen three super-PAC ads—two supporting Ron Paul and the other backing Mitt Romney. The message was clear: There was money to burn in his home state. After all, groups tight on cash spend on broadcast spots, not predawn cable. Or, as the exercised Republican (who requested anonymity because he now has a job in state government) put it, “Show me three super-PAC ads when I’m at Gold’s Gym working out and that just means [either] you’re looking for ways to spend your ad budget or you have the ad buyers from hell.”
And that’s just a taste of the air war being waged in the Palmetto State ahead of the Jan. 21 primary. The super PACs supporting the six remaining GOP candidates have already spent almost $6 million in television advertising there, according to a review by an ad buyer obtained by National Journal. By contrast, super PACs spent $5 million in Iowa and just $2 million in New Hampshire (the Our Destiny PAC supporting Jon Huntsman was the only one to buy in the Granite State), underscoring the do-or-die nature of South Carolina for the not-Romney crowd. The candidates themselves have spent only about $2.7 million on television because the PACs have done so much of the heavy lifting. Their blitz buys a ton of ads in a state where it generally costs less than $300,000 to nearly saturate the airwaves for a week.
Considering the state’s reputation for venomous politics, all of this spending will make for an incredible ruckus. This is the place where, in 2000, rumors spread that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. The dirty game has historically been played through push polls, mailers, and whisper campaigns, not beamed directly onto the family’s flat screen. But take Lee Atwater’s home state (where the granddaddy of political knife-fighting learned to pull a blade), brew up a market with cheap TV time, and pour in half a dozen super PACs that specialize in running hit pieces on their opponents, and you can bet this will be a historically negative campaign.
PACs won’t deepen the invective, but they’ll amplify it.
That doesn’t mean the salvos will carry more invective than last time. “I don’t think you’re going to see anything R-rated,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, a prominent GOP super PAC that is neutral in the Republican presidential primary. “The super PACs are visually too tied to the candidates to do something too over the top, even though they’re legally separate entities that don’t coordinate.” But even if the messages are merely PG-13, the super PACs will amplify them to a din by blasting them across the state.
Winning the Future, the pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC, has vowed to spend $3.4 million on ads attacking Romney. The group has produced a short feature portraying the former venture capitalist as a greedy corporate raider and was inquiring with TV sales offices earlier this week about buying 30-minute blocks of airtime to broadcast it, according to a top strategist from a rival camp. “Just to make that relative, that’s probably what [Gov. Nikki] Haley and I spent total, combined, in the general election for governor,” a state Sen. Vincent Sheheen said of Winning Our Future’s advertising budget. The Democrat, who narrowly lost to Haley in 2010, estimated that the two together didn’t spend more than $3 million on television ads.
So far on South Carolina TV, Restore Our Future PAC has spent almost $2.1 million for Romney. Make Us Great Again, the PAC pushing Rick Perry, bought almost $1.7 million in advertising. Winning Our Future plunked down about $1.5 million for Gingrich. The Santa Rita PAC has spent about $326,000 in support of Paul. The Red, White, and Blue Fund behind Rick Santorum spent about $175,000. And the PAC backing Huntsman, Our Destiny, has spent about $50,000.
Neither Haley nor Sheheen had the cash to advertise in the state’s border areas—the media markets of Augusta, Ga., Savannah, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., are more expensive and, therefore, harder to reach—but super PACs supporting Romney, Gingrich, and Paul have bought airtime in all of them. Overall, outside groups have spent about five times more on ads so far in this election cycle than at this point four years ago, according to one media analyst who asked to speak on background.
Still, money can’t necessarily buy results in South Carolina. Indeed, as the primary draws nearer, the wall of noise blaring from TVs throughout the state could become an indistinguishable fog. “You can only buy so much before the repetitiveness of it turns into a blur,” Sheheen said. “Seven days out, 10 days out, you get that blur effect.” Unless a standout ad emerges from the clutter, the most effective ads will probably end up being some of the earliest.
Reid Wilson contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.