In Iowa, it doesn’t pay to spend big

Times Staff Writer

Money can’t buy love -- and it might not necessarily decide the Iowa caucuses.

White House hopefuls have poured tens of millions of dollars into the contest here, setting new spending records in hopes of launching their candidacies with a breakthrough victory tonight. But history shows that the candidate who spends the most in Iowa doesn’t always walk away the winner.

The exact amount that candidates have spent this year in Iowa -- and years past -- is not known. The Federal Election Commission doesn’t require state breakdowns, and most campaigns treat such details as secret. Still, some conclusions can be drawn by reviewing advertising budgets and overall campaign spending leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the nation’s first presidential nominating contests.

Four years ago, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, spent $40 million overall before Iowa’s caucuses. Yet he placed third behind his party’s eventual presidential and vice presidential nominees, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who by that time had spent $28 million, and then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who spent $12.5 million.

In 1988, the Rev. Pat Robertson spent the most in the early going among several Republicans running, but finished second in Iowa behind then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. (Neither captured the party’s nomination. That went to George H.W. Bush, who was vice president.)


Among Democrats that year, then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri won in Iowa despite being outspent by the third-place finisher and eventual nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts.

This time, two candidates -- former Gov. Mike Huckabee, an Arkansas Republican, and Edwards, making his second try for the Democratic nomination -- are in the thick of the fight despite being overwhelmingly outspent.

“He ought to beat me 4 to 1, at least,” Huckabee said this week of his main Iowa rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “If he doesn’t, I think he has a lot of explaining.”

Romney, a successful businessman before entering politics, spent $52 million on his White House bid through the first nine months of 2007, much of that in Iowa. During the same period, Huckabee spent $1.7 million, according to campaign finance reports.

On the Democratic side, a top aide to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois pegged his candidate’s spending in Iowa and that of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York at $20 million each. Clinton aides declined to comment.

Edwards is accepting federal matching funds and is therefore limited to spending about $4 million in Iowa.

He does benefit from a loophole. Though he limits his own spending, his backers are conducting independent efforts that have spent more than $2 million on his behalf.

Much of the money is going into political advertising. In the last month, presidential candidates and political organizations have spent $17 million on political ads, airing no fewer than 20,453 political commercials, according to Evan Tracey, the head of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington, Va., firm that tracks political advertising.

Some Iowans “like to believe” the torrent of spending over the last year marked a change from Iowa’s famous retail brand of one-one-one campaigning, said Drake University political scientist Arthur Sanders.

But in fact, he said, heavy spending dates to 1996, when publishing magnate Steve Forbes, using his own money, spent $25 million leading up to Iowa -- where he finished fourth.

Political pros say even if money doesn’t necessarily buy voters’ love on the campaign trail, it’s still crucial to have around. David Wilhelm, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said that “it certainly can create an atmosphere where love can bloom.”