An Animated Look at the 2012 Republican TV Primary

The longest-lasting GOP presidential campaigns waited until late to go on TV, and other lessons from animated maps of the 2012 race.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, speaks at the 2011 CPAC conference in Washington DC on Friday, February 11, 2011.
National Journal
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Scott Bland
April 30, 2015, 11:10 a.m.

The battle for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee is, for now, largely go­ing on be­hind closed doors, with can­did­ates chas­ing donors, staff, and big-name sup­port­ers. But when the chase moves past that “in­vis­ible primary” and onto ac­tu­ally com­mu­nic­at­ing with large groups of voters, the biggest in­dic­at­or will be TV ads — lots and lots of TV ads.

Though ex­pens­ive, TV ads among the best ways for politi­cians to com­mu­nic­ate with voters en masse. In large part, the donor meet­ings that take up the cam­paigns’ days right now are so im­port­ant be­cause they will ul­ti­mately fund weeks and weeks of pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive ads. How — in what states and at what times — those ads were de­ployed was a huge part of the 2012 elec­tion, and that will un­doubtedly be true again in 2016.

Dav­id Sea­wright of Deep Root Ana­lyt­ics, a Re­pub­lic­an me­dia-tar­get­ing firm, cre­ated a pair of an­im­ated maps show­ing how the most re­cent GOP pres­id­en­tial primary played out on TV. The maps don’t show the volume of ad­vert­ising (which Mitt Rom­ney and groups back­ing him dom­in­ated), but they do show where TV ad­vert­ising moved over time and when it happened as Rom­ney, Rick San­tor­um, Newt Gin­grich, and oth­ers fought for votes in dif­fer­ent primary states.

The maps out­line sev­er­al key trends from 2012 that could play im­port­ant factors in the crowded 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, in­clud­ing when the ma­jor can­did­ates de­cided to go on the air and how they de­cided to hop around from state to state as they moved through the primary cal­en­dar.

The maps out­line sev­er­al key trends from 2012 that could play im­port­ant factors in the crowded 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, in­clud­ing when the ma­jor can­did­ates de­cided to go on the air and how they de­cided to hop around from state to state as they moved through the primary cal­en­dar.

Here are the three biggest things that the an­im­a­tions high­light:

The can­did­ates who ad­vert­ise early gen­er­ally didn’t last very long. Rom­ney, the even­tu­al nom­in­ee, didn’t go on TV un­til Novem­ber 2011. Part of that was be­cause he already was a well-known fa­vor­ite (when he was run­ning from a less-known po­s­i­tion in 2007, Rom­ney star­ted run­ning TV ads in Feb­ru­ary of that year, nearly 12 months be­fore the 2008 Iowa caucuses). In 2012, Rom­ney’s cam­paign, as well as those of Gin­grich and San­tor­um, stayed off the air over the sum­mer. Mean­while, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bach­mann, and oth­ers farther back in the pack were try­ing to make noise with early cam­paign ads. In­stead, they ended up run­ning them­selves out of cash.

The early signs for 2016 in­dic­ate that more can­did­ates will have ser­i­ous fin­an­cial re­sources, both in their own cam­paigns and in sup­port­ive su­per PACs, and none start off in the po­s­i­tion Rom­ney did in 2011. But the pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns also real­ize the dangers of peak­ing too early. Wheth­er that trans­lates in­to sav­ing re­sources for TV ads un­til later in 2015 re­mains to be seen, but the can­did­ates who waited latest in the last primary also did the best.

All roads don’t go through New Hamp­shire. In the second map, we can see San­tor­um’s late charge to the front of the pack in Iowa. And then, as col­or pours across the map in­to New Hamp­shire, the next state on the cal­en­dar, San­tor­um’s ef­forts split off. In­stead, his cam­paign and su­per PAC put their money in­to South Car­o­lina, a state with a much more con­ser­vat­ive, evan­gel­ic­al-dom­in­ated GOP primary elect­or­ate than New Hamp­shire’s.

New Hamp­shire, with its first-in-the-na­tion primary, plays a huge role in the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess, but not every can­did­ate’s po­ten­tial path to the pres­id­ency tra­verses the state. San­tor­um wasn’t the first Iowa caucus win­ner to largely skip New Hamp­shire and fo­cus on South Car­o­lina, and he might not be the last.

Big states can cause big prob­lems. Of course, San­tor­um didn’t win South Car­o­lina; Newt Gin­grich did. Gin­grich’s first primary win gave his cam­paign a jolt of mo­mentum head­ing in­to the fourth, most pop­u­lous state on the early primary cal­en­dar — Flor­ida — and you can see that pro-Gin­grich TV ads flooded in­to the state ac­cord­ingly. But not only did Rom­ney beat Gin­grich in the Flor­ida primary, the ex­pense of com­pet­ing in the state’s many me­dia mar­kets crippled Gin­grich’s cam­paign.

After Flor­ida, Gin­grich’s cam­paign and his su­per PAC ba­sic­ally dis­ap­peared from the air­waves un­til just be­fore Su­per Tues­day, leav­ing space for San­tor­um to re­claim the “Rom­ney al­tern­at­ive” mantle after fad­ing post-Iowa. Pro-San­tor­um ad­vert­ising picked up throughout the Mid­w­est and then the South dur­ing that time, where he notched a few more primary wins and ran very close to Rom­ney in sev­er­al “Rust Belt” states.

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