Nikki Haley at Center of Costliest Ad War in Iowa Caucus History—Just to Come in Second

Nikki Haley at Center of Costliest Ad War in Iowa Caucus History—Just to Come in Second

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Every four years, as White House wannabes make their final push into lead-off Iowa, all of the sage strategists who can be found nursing drinks at the Des Moines Marriott’s bar are tending to the same anxiety: Does their contender have enough runway to launch, or did the campaign perhaps peak too soon?

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The answer is often disappointing, and this year’s Jan. 15 caucuses are shaping up to be no exception for most of the field. For every Cinderella-like story for the likes of Mike Huckabee in 2008 or Rick Santorum four years later, there is a Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry, who both flashed brightly but briefly, only to flame out. Surges are easy to hallucinate, but the real late-breaking Big Mo’ is tough to pull off. Even then, it mightn’t matter; going back almost a half-century to 1976, only four winners of competitive Iowa GOP caucuses have become the Republicans’ nominee.

Already, ​​Republican campaigns have spent almost $105 million on ads in the state, according to tracking from the independent firm AdImpact. That is one out of every three dollars spent on political ads this cycle among White House hopefuls nationwide. Yet the focus of the barrage of ad spending has narrowed to a single candidate: Nikki Haley, who has climbed from low single-digits in Iowa to a legitimate second-place contender. Her goal is to emerge from the caucus as the most viable alternative to a third nomination of Donald Trump, setting her up for a stronger finish in New Hampshire, where she’s been nothing short of a rocket since late summer. Soon after will be the South Carolina primary, where her baked-in advantage as a former Governor is not to be ignored. 

Heading into the final two weeks of the costliest contest in Iowa caucus history, Haley is the undisputed champion on the local airwaves, where there is no avoiding almost 350,000 cumulative political ads and counting. She and her allies have scheduled a massive $4.6 million in advertising before the caucus, according to AdImpact. The Trump campaign, by contrast, has a little less than $1 million on the books and his super PACs are dark. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose bubble seems to deflate a little more with every week, has about $1.7 million booked before the caucuses through his campaign and two (sometimes-rival) super PACs.

(Tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy has canceled his remaining Iowa ad buys after $1.8 million in spending there has failed to move the needle, spending he later called “idiotic” and laughable for its lack of data-driven results. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who never found Iowa a particularly ripe place for his tough-talking East Coast brashness, is looking to make his stand in New Hampshire, a state where he finished in sixth place when he ran eight years ago and dropped out the next day. Christie’s boosters insist that unlike eight years ago, Granite Staters are leaving his town halls committed to backing him.)

Four years ago, when Iowa last hosted a caucus with just one competitive race—Trump was assumed to win re-nomination in 2020 so Iowa didn’t rack up spending on the GOP side—the Democrats spent a whopping $70 million on ads. That sum, twice what was in play ahead of the 2016 caucuses that were competitive on both sides of the aisle, included roughly a quarter from billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who saw negligible help on his way to a 1% finish.

By the time we finally get to this Election Day, there’s a very good chance that total ad spending on the White House race alone will top $2.7 billion nationally, according to one estimate. Across all races, the sum could soar to $10.2 billion nationally. 

The old cliche in Iowa is that you win by spending time in small klatches with caucusgoers and visiting all 99 counties on a retail-heavy schedule. Evangelical Christians, too, have long held major sway—especially their leaders who often sign on as advisers to the campaigns. Yet despite Iowa’s reputation as a place where anyone with a conservative message can break through without vaults of cash, that mightn’t be the case any longer.

To be sure, Haley’s late-hour dominance on the air may not fundamentally change the race. In the states where she is beating most other contenders, she’s still mightily down. Trump has about a 30-point advantage at this point in Iowa and South Carolina polling, and is up more than 20 points in New Hampshire. Haley seems stuck in single-digits in Nevada, which frankly has not been atop her priorities because it comes in the window between New Hampshire and her Waterloo—the one at home in South Carolina, not the one in Iowa’s Black Hawk County. 

Iowa has a reputation for being notoriously tricky to poll, given the caucuses’ decidedly non-democratic nature of forcing folks to publicly announce their picks in front of their neighbors at a specific time and place. Still, no contender with a double-digit lead at this point has ever lost the caucuses, according to a Des Moines Register analysis.

Then there’s this reality in all four early-nominating states: Trump, at least for now, seems to be facing criticism solely from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He alone seems to have the spine to go directly at Trump. Much of Haley’s ad buy is meant to criticize DeSantis or to introduce herself to Iowans. The same goes for DeSantis, who is training his attention at Haley. Only 3% of the negative ads in Iowa have laid a hand on Trump all cycle, according to an AdImpact analysis.

“This is the problem with my three colleagues,” Christie said at last month’s debate that Trump skipped. “They’re afraid to offend Donald Trump.” As they were that night, they appear to remain so, by and large.

But there’s a reason Haley, who served as the U.N. Ambassador during the Trump administration, and DeSantis, who was an early favorite of Trump backers looking for an alternative before they actually met the Florida Governor, are muting their criticism: Christie’s anti-Trump strategy hasn’t worked. He failed to qualify for next week’s debate in Des Moines. If you go after the party don, you’d best not miss. (Ramaswamy, too, failed to make the cut for a night that will be DeSantis and Haley going one-on-one as Trump and Ramaswamy hold separate alternative programs.)

Yet time is running out for either Haley or DeSantis. Both went heavily to Iowa, known to reward those who show up. Two weeks isn’t a ton of time to make up her considerable deficit—again, if the polls are to be believed. Should the polls be off again, maybe the Haley-DeSantis skirmish on the airwaves could be decisive. Their media buyers sure think so and don’t mind their commissions, either.

The airwaves, however, are clogged with the ads from those supporting Haley and DeSantis— two East Coast Guvs trying to convince heartland caucusgoers that they’re a better fit for their values than the thrice-married New York billionaire, even if they won’t make the comparison that bluntly. “Tricky Nikki” and “too lame to lead, too weak to win” have been the insults hurled across the narrow ditch that separates the pair compared to their differences with Biden.

Neither is likely to overtake Trump based on this gutter chase. A ticket out of Des Moines and into Manchester, N.H., might be the real prize and sufficient to justify the investments in the state. But this has all of the makings of a 2016 deja vu, with the potential Trump alternatives all spending too long deciding who should be the last one of them standing. At some point, winners know how to punch up and through and stay there. That’s the momentum the Svengalis assembled at the Des Moines Marriott bar are chasing. Some of their clients, however, insist on continuing to swipe laterally, at best. It could deliver Trump the nomination and the nuclear launch codes once more.

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