Multiple debates depress early campaign ad spends, but 2012 could still break records

Will the 2012 presidential campaign succeed in breaking all records on advertising spending? Despite the much-covered GOP primary race, signs point to no.

Last June, Moody's Investors Service forecast that spending on political ads this campaign cycle would surpass 2008's then-record of $2 billion, and even topple the $2.3 billion haul produced by 2010's midterm elections—spending helped along by the Supreme Court decision in January of that year that effectively lifted the cap on campaign ad spending.

But signs that windfall (anywhere from a 9 to 18 percent increase, Moody's predicted) is on its way have yet to appear.

Spending in Iowa ahead of the caucuses was down about 85 percent compared to 2008, according to the Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which tracks campaign ad spending. Even a late flurry of attack ads and super PAC buys aimed mostly at Newt Gingrich didn't provide a critical boost in revenue.

All told, Republican hopefuls and their supporters spent about $12.5 million on ads in Iowa—with just a third of it being spent by the campaigns themselves.

In New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney holds a double-digit lead in the polls, campaign spending is expected to be down even more.

"We've been distressed like everybody else," Jeff Bartlett, general manager at New Hampshire's WMUR-9 television, told Yahoo News.

At WMUR, whose studio is jokingly referred to as "The House That Steve Forbes Built" (the erstwhile candidate's spending on the station's airwaves in 1996 and 2000 helped fund a lavish overhaul of the space), political ad spending is off about 40 percent this election cycle, according to Bartlett.

"We build our budgets every four years--it's a guess, based on past spending," Bartlett said. "It's not always accurate, and it wasn't this year."

"The race did not shape up the way we figured it would," he continued. "Because Romney's had such a huge lead, he didn't need to spend as much here." (Indeed, the Romney campaign spent more than $164,000 on ads in South Carolina through Jan. 4, leaving most of New Hampshire ad buys to super PACs.)

Bartlett added: "We don't care who buys the ads. It could be one candidate, it could be eight."

Other candidates, though, have decided to concede New Hampshire to Romney, too. "They don't call," he said of the campaigns.

After a day of reassessing his campaign after a poor showing in Iowa, Rick Perry, who spent the most money gearing up to the caucuses ($1.9 million, not including the $844,890 that "Make Us Great Again," a super PAC supporting his candidacy, kicked in), decided to effectively skip the Granite State and focus his energy—and financial resources—on South Carolina.

But even there, local advertisers are feeling the pinch from late-starting campaigns that have been slow to both raise funds and spend them, at least compared to 2008.

"Spending is down across the board," Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG, told Yahoo News.

So what's different about 2012? Campaign consultants and advertising industry experts alike note that in 2008, there were two open primaries, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battling it out for the Democratic nomination. This time, there's just one just one. There are also the challenges presented by a compressed caucus and primary schedule, which caught some of the slower-moving campaigns off guard.

And don't count out the exhaustive schedule of GOP debates, each drawing millions of viewers and effectively giving the candidates free airtime they'd otherwise have to pay for.

"In the fall, it was very much a national campaign," Goldstein said. "All of the debates and drama sucked up news cycle after news cycle."

The spectacle changed the strategy.

"I think a number of candidates have learned that going all in--spending wise--on Iowa or New Hampshire isn't exactly necessary," Ken Wheaton, managing editor at Advertising Age, told Yahoo News. "Small states and debates and personal visits are probably much better uses of time and money than advertising. [Rick] Santorum is a good example of that."

Indeed. Santorum, who lost the Iowa caucuses by just 8 votes, didn't spend a dime on ads in Iowa—though super PACs supporting his candidacy did, to the tune of $303,610.

Still, there's some good news for local sales reps stressing over the slow start: most analysts expect the campaign spending to come around.

"It means absolutely nothing," said CMAG's Goldstein. "We're still looking at 2012 as a banner year."

"If we're considering all of 2012, once the primary is over and GOP candidate is picked, I expect the spending will skyrocket," Wheaton said. "Keep in mind that neither Romney nor Obama will be taking matching federal funds, so they're both going to spend huge amounts, as will their related super PACs."

"Super PACs are efficient spenders of money, and that spending will get to the air," Goldstein said.

Especially if the tone of the general election campaign turns nasty.

"A candidate can have a super PAC do all the dirty work," Wheaton said, "and keep the ads carrying the old 'I'm so-and-so and I support this message' clean and relatively positive."

Read more coverage of the 2012 New Hampshire primary at Yahoo News.

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

In New Hampshire, mayor hopes Romney will help him reject refugees

Press crush for Ron Paul prompts complaints, potential bruises in Manchester, N.H.

Gingrich: I'm not going to let up on Romney

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or add us on Tumblr.

Handy with a camera? Join our Election 2012 Flickr group to submit your photos of the campaign in action.