WATERLOO | Across Iowa, more than 57,000 ads have aired in the contest for the state's first open U.S. Senate seat in a generation, a race that pits Democrat Bruce Braley against Republican Joni Ernst.
That's 57,065 ads purchased to be exact. And that's only through Oct. 15. In the days since then, the number of ads has continued to rise as more groups are spending more money to keep voters’ attention on the dead-heat contest that will help determine the balance of power in the Senate.
Those ads have cost Braley, Ernst and the 26 outside spending groups weighing in on the race a total of $27,749,809 between July 1 and Oct. 15, a statewide look at ad spending found.
The project, which began this summer, brought together eight newspapers, led by the Des Moines Register, to look at television advertising spending across the state, who’s buying and how much.
“For a pretty small state, $30 million is an incredible amount of money to be spent. Yeah, that’s just ridiculous, $30 million for a state with 3 million people, 2 million of which are active voters,” said Christopher Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. “That’s a lot of money spent per active voter.”
Larimer projected last summer spending in the race would total $20 million. Now, he’s not sure what the ceiling will be. It’s clear at least $30 million will be spent by the time Iowans get a respite from the ads after Nov. 4.
The number of spots is multiplying. The candidates and outside groups spent more in the 35 days between Sept. 11 and Oct. 15 than they had between July 1 and Sept. 10.
But it’s not just the money, it’s also the number of ads. Costs vary by market size. So even though more money so far has been spent in other markets, the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids market leads in the number of spots purchased.
Since July, the northeast Iowa market has been subjected to 16,975 advertising spots on the major networks. Those have ranged from 3,416 ads on KFXA to 4,749 ads on KWWL.
So, regular network TV viewers can't have seen them all. It just feels like it.
The next closest market is the Quad Cities, where a mere 12,596 ads have aired on four major network stations.
Larimer said there have been so many ads voters may be tuning them out.
“When this is all said and done, I think Iowans, they’re going to take a step back and realize how, probably, how fortunate they were that they don’t have to go through this every two or four years,” Larimer said. “It’s the first time that we’ve had a competitive Senate seat like this in so long."
He adds, “For everybody who hates politics, this was probably not something that was welcome.”
Other groups have aired thousands of spots across the state.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has purchased the most spots so far with 8,098. Ernst's campaign has followed with 7,342. Braley follows with 6,109 ads purchased.
The DSCC has also spent the most on ads, $5.05 million. Braley is next at $2.59 million. Ernst's campaign has spent $1.92 million.
Braley and his allies have outspent their opponents, so far by about $1.7 million. But Ernst and her allies spent close to $200,000 more in the past 35 days to cut down Braley’s spending lead.
Overall, Braley and his camp have spent $14.74 million, to the Ernst and camp's $13.01 million. But more ads have aired on Ernst's behalf.
Ernst and her allies have purchased 29,442 ads as of Oct. 15, Braley and his camp 27,623.
Ernst’s biggest supporters are American Crossroads, a group founded by GOP operative Karl Rove, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. American Crossroads has spent $2.33 million since July and the NRSC $2.3 million.
Braley's biggest outside supporters, aside from the DSCC, are ones Ernst has noted on the campaign trail: NextGen Climate Action, an environmental group led by Californian Tom Steyer, and the Senate Majority PAC, associated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Ernst is also backed by Freedom Partners Action Fund and Concerned Veterans for America. Both groups are affiliated with billionaire industrialists and brothers, Charles and David Koch. The Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity has also spent heavily in support of Ernst’s campaign.
Both Braley and Ernst have contributed relatively little to their own campaigns compared to the outside groups backing them.
Braley has bought less than 20 percent of his own ads. His $2.59 million is 17.6 percent of the spending on advertising for his bid for office. Ernst’s $1.92 million represents 14.8 percent of the spending on advertising for her bid for office.
Larimer said the advertisements airing now -- with nine days until Election Day -- are not so much to convince voters who to back but to remind them about to go to the polls.
The ads could also potentially have some negative impact. Larimer said outside interests may further the perception politicians are corrupt, and that Iowans can’t get the ear of their candidates like they used to.
“Iowans like to get to know somebody, like it is with the Iowa caucuses,” Larimer said. “I think Iowans really, they take politics very personally, and they feel like they should get to know the person, that these outside people should not get to know their person.”
He said the 57,000-plus ads have eclipsed other races. In northeast Iowa, the 1st District congressional race between Democrat Pat Murphy and Republican Rod Blum is making it to the periphery of people’s attention, but the legislative races are almost fully lost in the shuffle.
After Nov. 4 Iowans get a brief reprieve -- until the 2016 presidential race gets underway in the spring.
Correction (10/27): Correction made to accurately reflect Larimer's title at UNI.