The Iowa electoral contest is a different beast from primaries in other states, not least due to its fascinating voting process. With its 99 county conventions and 1,681 caucuses, the event forces presidential campaigns to supplement traditional TV advertising with an intense get-out-the-vote effort on the ground.
It has become increasingly evident that investment in TV ad spots needs to be strategically rolled back in favor of more affordable and successful media opportunities.
Super-PACs have spent around $26.6 million in Iowa. Strikingly, TheDes Moines Register reported that “More than a third of that money has gone to support candidates who have dropped out of the race,” with another third spent in support of Jeb Bush, who polls in single digits. Much of that money went into TV advertising.
Campaigns have come to realize the black hole that Iowa is for TV dollars -- and those who figured that out early, i.e. Sen. Ted Cruz -- are seeing the results in the polls.
Despite the intense focus on Iowa from both candidates and the media, candidates can place poorly without especially damaging their chances of nomination. For example, in 1992, Bill Clinton picked up a total 3% in the Iowa caucus. On the Republican side, the past two Iowa winners were not the nominee, with Mike Huckabee on top in 2008 and Rick Santorum winning in 2012.
Nonetheless, a win in Iowa gives a campaign a definite boost, as does one in New Hampshire. Since the 1996 election, the eventual nominee won at least one of the two first primary contests. With South Carolina voting on Feb. 20, candidates have ample time to hone their messages for a final push or attempt a last-ditch pivot after the Feb. 9 New Hampshire contest.
In a campaign cycle that has been less than predictable, the Iowa caucus at this point is up in the air. Sen. Bernie Sanders told “Face the Nation” that he likes his chances there and is steadily gaining on Hillary Clinton.
Ted Cruz tops the Republican polls in Iowa, having developed an impressive local apparatus and investing heavily in online media. But Donald Trump is right up there, with 27.5% in RealClearPolitics’ Iowa polling average, tagging along closely to Cruz who has 30.3% in the RCP average.
Although Iowa does not have the final word, it demonstrates a shift in political strategies and is vindicating an increasingly diverse approach to campaign spending.