Ad Battle

A User’s Guide to the Iowa Air Wars

The anti-Gingrich barrage took its toll. Rick Perry’s wife can’t save him. And Rick Santorum proves the ground game still matters. Judith Grey on the ads shaping Iowa’s outcome. Plus, Peter Beinart on why Mitt doesn't need to win Iowa.

If you don’t live in Iowa nor have a penchant for visiting the websites of Republican political candidates on a regular basis, here’s a quick guide to some of the ads that have been launched in a last-chance drive to influence Tuesday’s vote:

The Anti-Newt Ads

They are mean and they are many.

With Newt’s history of illegal-immigrant pandering, Freddie Mac profiting, and Nancy Pelosi BFF-ing, it’s easy to imagine that the attack ads about him virtually wrote themselves. For example, Restore Our Future—the über-generous super PAC supporting the Romney campaign—dispatched more than half a dozen anti-Gingrich ads in December alone. Although stylistically disparate—ranging from earnest (see “Plan”) to mocking (see “Whoops”)—each ad aims to undermine Gingrich’s credibility with equal venom. They all challenge his commitment to conservative values, question his ethical standards, and emphasize his excessive “baggage” as disdainfully as New Yorkers talking about their exes in the ’90s.

Ron Paul has been equally as enthusiastic about releasing anti-Newt messaging. His “Serial Hypocrisy” ad, for instance, is so artfully assembled and insidious seeming that you half expect Russell Crowe to appear—as he did in The Insider—and sacrifice everything he’s worked so hard for in order to prove that Gingrich is the malfeasant phony that everyone thinks he is.

With a huge media buy—almost half the amount spent in Iowa in total—these ads have done a tremendous job. Iowans took to the negative messages like locusts to a corn crop, placing Gingrich in fourth place, just ahead of the other presidential no-hopefuls—Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.

The Anti-Other Candidate Ads

Not as frequent, nor as harsh, the ads that attack the other candidates—either individually or collectively—didn’t cause nearly as much damage for them as they did for Gingrich.

The Paul campaign, for example, released a couple of ads that introduce the idea of “failed leadership” in Washington, attributing the demise to several candidates, not to mention the president. One ad claims that the “Washington machine is strangling our economy,” and “serial hypocrites” like Gingrich and “flip floppers” like Romney “can’t clean up the mess.” The other blames “smooth-talking politicians” for the “lost hope” in D.C. The ads conclude by saying that “one man has stood apart”… he’s “The One We’ve Been Looking For. Ron Paul.” If he didn’t look so wimpy and hadn’t released newsletters that seemed to have been drafted by a bunch of Eugenicists, we might just believe him.

Rick Perry put together a few curious anti–Washington establishment attack ads as well—“Newsreel,” “Fox,” and “Part-Time Congress.” Although all these ads use interesting techniques to make the point that we need to shake up Washington and find a new solution, Rick Perry has proven (time and time again) that he’s exactly not the guy to do the job. And no amount of advertising is going to change that.

The Positive Ads

Although most of the candidates are claiming to run mostly positive campaigns, the frequency of positive ads on air is relatively low. Here they are (even if most Iowans won’t see them very often).

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Ron Paul’s “Staying on the Right Path,” speaks to the candidate’s record as a doctor with strong pro-life undertones. Former patients of the obstetrician sing his praises: “You just knew that he cared about you,” and tout his non-flip-flopping stance on abortion: “I love the fact that he hasn’t changed in all these years.” For the right audience—social conservatives—this ad could be very powerful in spite of his other unredeemable gaffes.

Rick Perry’s heroic “Fiscal Conservative” ad and Mitt Romney’s optimistic “Freedom and Opportunity” commercial both strike a similar, moderately compelling note: I’m a true conservative, I have the capacity to create jobs, and I look better in a pair of jeans than Rick Santorum. They certainly won’t do any harm.

The ads featuring their spouses, however, aren’t equally successful. While Ann Romney convincingly speaks to her husband’s character, Rick Perry’s wife—who’s even bothering to learn her name at this point?—inevitably reminds us of Perry’s immutable doofus status. She begins the commercial by saying that hers is “an old-fashioned American story. I married my high-school sweetheart …” Instead of evoking positive thoughts about Perry being a loyal and loving husband, you can’t help but pity her for being married to that can’t-remember-more-than-two-items-on-list ninny for so long. It’s game over for Governor Perry. When your wife can’t even make you look good, it’s time to pack your cowboy boots and go home.

In a last-ditch effort not to admit defeat like she really should, Michele Bachmann released an inordinately upbeat commercial this morning, “America’s Iron Lady.” While the ad will do nothing to help Bachmann at this point, featuring a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, the commercial might remind people to see the movie, which is actually pretty good.

The cash-strapped Rick Santorum also managed to throw together a positive ad, “Best Chance” but he didn’t have the funds to air it very often. However, after spending more time in Iowa than any other candidate—the calculation to trade air-time for face time—might have paid off. Santorum is currently surging in the polls and some pundits are even predicting a win in the state. By traveling from town to town, coffee shop to supermarket parking lot—in a pickup truck, no less—he’s managed to win hearts and minds the old-fashioned way. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter, and cable TV aren’t as important as we think they are.

Correction: Story initially inaccurately reported that Santorum did not have the funds to air the ad.