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Iowa TV Station Execs Say Rick Perry The Biggest Ad Spender

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry spent the most money on television advertising heading into the Iowa Caucuses, according to an informal poll by Broadcasting & Cable of local TV station executives.  Execs say that a Political Action Committee (or Super PAC) that independently supports Mitt Romney was the second-largest spender in Iowa, where multiple sources estimate about $17 million was spent.

The Iowa TV execs also say PAC money, which typically pops up in the general election, ended up accounting for close to half of the total political spending this time around in the state.  This time around there is no limit on what the so-called Super PAC's (like the Restore Our Future Super PAC that backs Romney) can spend, as long as they operate independent of a candidate.

And much of that spending went towards negative ads. While conventional wisdom says meanness does not play in Iowa, the PAC ads' often attacking nature seems to have worked, with various groups talking down Newt Gingrich, say local TV execs, more than they talked up their own preferred candidates.

"It's normally never negative here, but that's one dynamic I've seen change with the PAC money involved," says Dale Woods, president and general manager of WHO Des Moines. "The candidate buys are positive, but the PAC money is negative. I think that's a dynamic you'll see all over the country."

And the money this year came in relatively late. In the end, political ad spend reached the level local TV execs expected. But it didn't come easily.

Local TV executives cite a number of factors, including the late announcement of Iowa's caucus date and the high number of Republican candidate debates, in the inconsistent spending. "If you'd asked me a month ago, I would've been a little leery about when and if the money would come in as we'd budgeted for this year," says John Huff, general sales manager at KWWL Cedar Rapids. "But the past few weeks, it arrived."

While many sales executives in the state's TV markets expected a consistent flow from the Republican hopefuls throughout the year, it was a deluge in recent weeks--driven by Super PAC cash--that finally brought the numbers up to the forecasted levels.

"Four years ago, Romney had six months of advertising," says Woods. "This time, it was four weeks."

Stations hit their political numbers despite a relative dearth of candidates spending on TV, thanks in part to an incumbent president. The 2007-2008 caucus lead-up involved both Republican and Democrat parties, and had around 10 candidates spending on Iowa television; only a handful of candidates spent significantly this year.

While the attacks may have hurt Gingrich's poll numbers, he did have a key media ally in his corner. The conservative media outlet Newsmax bought 30-minute pro-Gingrich infomercials, hosted by Michael Reagan, son of the former president, throughout the state, and even in corners of bordering states. The expenditure got some attention in stations' sales departments. "It was significant dollars -- I'd venture to say they spent several hundred thousand [in Iowa]," says Huff. "I hadn't seen that before."

Iowa stations will be live much of the evening, and night, as they cover the races. Between the uncommon buildup to Caucus Day and the estimated 40% of undecided voters in Iowa, the newsrooms are ready for any and all curveballs flying out of the caucus sites statewide. "I've been with the station for 38-plus years, and I've never seen one quite like this," says Paul Fredericksen, president and general manager of KCCI Des Moines. "It will be very, very interesting to see what the end results are."