Republican presidential candidates spent $13.2 million on TV ads in South Carolina — money that did not translate into votes for the top spenders.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his super-political action committees spent $4.7 million only to finish in second place. Romney spent twice as much as S.C. winner Newt Gingrich.
Rick Perry and his allied political action committee spent $2.5 million, the second most of any candidate. But the Texas governor finished with just more than 2,000 votes after dropping out of the race on Thursday.
Former House Speaker Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who finished third, combined spent $4.1 million, or $600,000 less than Romney. Yet Gingrich and Santorum together received twice as many votes as Romney on primary day.
Candidates spent nearly half of their money in the week leading up to the primary, resulting in an unprecedented barrage of political ads for South Carolinians. Even President Barack Obama got in on the act, spending $88,649 in the Charlotte market, which includes some S.C. counties.
There were so many political ads on the air that they lost their impact, said one political consultant.
“You had so much focus on Iowa and New Hampshire early, that, by the time money was being spent on ads here, it largely became noise to voters,” said Joel Sawyer, a S.C. consultant who worked for Jon Huntsman’s now-defunct campaign. “In the final days of the campaign, there were so many ads that people were looking for other sources of information. And that’s why the debates became more important.”
South Carolina hosted two debates in the week leading up to Saturday’s primary. Eighty-eight percent of S.C. primary voters said the debates were a factor in their vote, and nearly half of those voters — 42 percent — voted for Gingrich.
Despite the spotty results achieved, the massive TV spending probably is here to stay in South Carolina. A record 601,577 people voted in Saturday’s primary. That’s nearly twice as many who voted in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary combined. And it is a 209 percent increase from the 1988 S.C. Republican presidential primary, when 195,000 people voted.
“The universe of people who vote in our primary has expanded to a lot of voters you can’t touch with a grassroots campaign,” Sawyer said. “We have truly transitioned to an air-war state. Look at the two campaigns that had the most long-established ground games in South Carolina: Santorum and (Ron) Paul. They did relatively poorly.”
Fueling all of the spending is the rise of super-PACs – independent, private groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing who their donors are until after the primary. By law, a super-PAC cannot coordinate its activities with its allied candidate and must operate separately. Super-PACs accounted for 58 percent of TV spending in South Carolina, more than was spent on TV ads by the candidates supported by the PACs.
The one exception was Ron Paul. His campaign spent $1.8 million on S.C. TV ads, while his two super-PACs spent $443,623.
Candidates bought ads in each of the state’s four major media markets: Greenville-Spartanburg, Columbia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach-Florence. Two candidates, Romney and Gingrich, bought ads in TV markets that border South Carolina — Augusta, Savannah and Charlotte —and include viewers in Georgia or North Carolina.
Of the four major S.C. TV markets, Myrtle Beach-Florence saw the biggest air war.
“It wasn’t just one candidate’s commercial. They were, like, back to back, refuting what the other candidate said about them,” said Marty Wirther, who lives in Surfside Beach, south of Myrtle Beach.
Wirther, a 64-year-old retired school teacher, voted for Rick Santorum after hearing him speak at a coffee house before a debate last week in Myrtle Beach.
“The commercials are basically just back-stabbing each other. I don’t really think they are that effective in showing the values of each candidate,” she said. “Listening to someone first-person was very effective.”
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