WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich, a man of more acts than your average reality television star, has been slain and resurrected twice in the drama that is the Republican presidential campaign. His latest resurrection comes at the same hand that seemingly defeated him in Iowa. There, but for the grace of a super PAC, would have gone Gingrich.
His stirring debate performances channeling the Southern id of the Republican Party have given a second boost to the former House speaker's candidacy in the waning days before the South Carolina vote. But solidifying his debate gains are the millions of dollars spent by a super PAC that has reversed the spending disparity that hit Gingrich so hard in Iowa.
Unlike in Iowa, where Gingrich's record was shredded in a barrage of negative ads from a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, Gingrich's campaign in South Carolina has been buoyed by a multimillion-dollar response from a pro-Newt super PAC called Winning Our Future. That spending is helping push his last-minute poll surge, as he moves into a virtual tie with Romney.
According to a Huffington Post review of records filed with the Federal Election Commission, super PACs supporting the remaining four Republican candidates have spent $7.1 million in South Carolina. Nearly all of that money comes from Winning Our Future and the pro-Romney Restore Our Future, which have spent $2.93 million and $2.84 million, respectively, to launch attacks against each other's candidate.
That's a dramatic departure from the terms of battle in Iowa, where Gingrich had promised to run a positive campaign, only to watch his campaign and super PAC being woefully outspent by the Romney machine. After going down in flames at the hands of Restore Our Future, Gingrich pledged to turn his campaign to the dark side and, voila, negative ads were unleashed by the pro-Gingrich super PAC.
Winning Our Future began its assault by purchasing a documentary that characterized Romney as a "vulture" capitalist who sucked companies dry for millions of dollars to his own personal profit. The documentary, made by a longtime GOP operative with a history of soliciting secret money for political efforts, caused a major stir in the press and led to a series of related ads. The super PAC has cut more negative ads, including one that hits Romney for promising to protect "Massachusetts' pro-choice laws" when he was running for governor.
None of this would have been possible without the court decisions, most importantly the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, that permit individuals, corporations and unions to spend freely in elections. Gingrich's super PAC is supported by a $5 million contribution from his friend Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire with close ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Without the super PAC and the billionaire's backing, Gingrich's own poorly financed campaign would have little ability to respond to Romney's well-funded, well-oiled organization. He still would have shone in debates, but no ads would have helped maintain his momentum or hit back against the Romney super PAC onslaught.
While the conventional wisdom is that campaigning activities like advertising do not have a major effect on the general election for president when the major-party candidates face off, the opposite has been true in this Republican primary season. An examination of factors influencing voting patterns in Iowa and New Hampshire by the Associated Press' Jack Gillum found that "ad spending correlated more with election results than other known factors, such as a town's political party makeup and how often a candidate came to visit."
Jonathan Ladd, an assistant professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University, said that campaigning efforts do play a major role in influencing voters when they head to the polls in primaries. "All those things that influence voters and drown out effects of the campaign aren't present in primaries," Ladd said. "People don't have loyalties -- it's the same party -- and there's a huge amount of people who are swayable. ... Unlike general elections, you can have huge disparities in resources."
That resource disparity, in stark relief before the Iowa caucuses, has narrowed thanks to the pro-Gingrich super PAC spending in South Carolina.
This has been yet another contest where super PACs have dominated the airwaves. According to advertising buy data collected over the past week by South Carolina Patch in the Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, and Charlotte media markets, super PACs supporting the remaining four candidates have spent $2.4 million compared to the $1.6 million spent by candidates so far in the month of January.
Those numbers dovetail with a Jan. 14 report from The State newspaper that looked at all ad buys across South Carolina. It found that super PACs spent nearly twice as much on advertising as the candidates did -- $7.3 million by the super PACs vs. $3.84 million by the candidates over the course of the entire campaign.
The Patch ad buy data show that Romney has benefited from the most spending across the four South Carolina media markets, with a total of $1.56 million of airtime bought by his campaign and two super PACs supporting him. Gingrich and his super PAC have bought up $934,078 worth of time in those four markets. This still marks a big closing of the gap in terms of the ad buy disparity witnessed in Iowa.
The ad spending has been concentrated in the Greenville area, which is more expensive and more populated than any other media market in South Carolina. Three super PACs -- Winning Our Future, Restore Our Future and the pro-Rick Santorum Red White And Blue Fund -- each spent more than any of the candidates in the Greenville market in January.
Without super PACs, this race would look dramatically different. Romney and Ron Paul have spent the most on advertising -- more than $500,000 each -- in these key markets, with Santorum and Gingrich spending significantly less -- $322,100 and $195,858, respectively. Mark Schmidt in a column for Salon characterized both Gingrich and Santorum as "zombie candidates," only living thanks to the billionaires donating to their super PACs.
Underfunded candidates can now survive and compete without a broad base of financial support thanks to supposedly independent organizations paid for by their wealthiest supporters.
If Gingrich, or Santorum, upsets Romney in South Carolina, he'll know exactly which billionaire to thank.