The 'cheapest' primary in a decade: 5 theories

Confounding expectations, GOP candidates have spent considerably less so far than their counterparts in the last several presidential races. Why?

Republican presidential hopefuls have spent only $53 million this campaign season and critics suspect wealthier candidates like Mitt Romney are holding out for Obama.
(Image credit: Tristan Spinski/Corbis)

The 2012 presidential election is expected to be the most expensive ever: The Center for Responsive Politics forecasts that an astonishing $6 billion will be spent. President Obama is aiming to raise $1 billion, his GOP rival will surely try to match him, and — thanks to loosened campaign-finance rules — outside groups' spending on campaign ads could reach record levels. Odd, then, that so far, the GOP race has been "one of the cheapest primaries in more than a decade," Bloomberg reports. The top nine Republican candidates spent just $53 million through September, versus $132 million in the same period four years ago. What's going on? Here, five theories:

1. The glut of debates gives candidates free advertising

The candidates grouse about the grueling debate schedule, but it's the 11 televised face-offs that "have made this the cheapest Republican primary season since 1996," says Don Surber in the Charleston, W.V., Daily Mail. The much-watched debates have been great for most of the candidates — sorry, Rick Perry — by allowing cash-strapped contenders like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain to rise to the top while helping "Mitt Romney conserve all that cash he has." With this much "free airtime" from the TV networks, who needs to pay for ads?

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2. Viral web videos are cheaper and better than TV ads

The "profusion of 'web ads' being put out by the campaigns" has slashed expenses, says Jazz Shaw at Hot Air. The cost of producing ads was always far less than paying TV stations to air them, so free web distribution is a boon. And since people choose to watch them, says Ann Althouse at her blog, these viral web ads will "become more important than those paid ads on television." Bonus: If a web video is "flamboyant" or bizarre enough, adds Shaw, cable news shows replay it "in endless loops to the target audience" that the campaigns want to reach.

3. Social media has streamlined campaigning

The campaigns are getting smart about using new, "free resources like Twitter and Facebook to get some buzz going," says Shaw at Hot Air. The rise of social media has also changed how campaigns spend by giving candidates "greater opportunity to connect with voters electronically and build databases of potential donors and volunteers without investing large amounts of time on the ground," says Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times.

4. Fox News has replaced costly retail politics

The biggest change in this election cycle has been the death of traditional meet-and-greet retail politics, says Zeleny in The New York Times. Why should candidates spend time and money to visit Iowa and New Hampshire voters when "it's like a town hall every day on Fox News," says Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The "Fox News effect" can be seen in the numbers: The network has interviewed Cain 63 times since he entered the race, and Gingrich has made 52 appearances.

5. The candidates are hoarding their cash for Obama

Leave it to tightfisted Republicans to slash their campaign spending during a recession, says Libby Spencer at The Impolitic. But don't worry: "This is just the pre-game show." While some candidates, like Gingrich, don't have the cash to run ads now, wealthy ones like Romney and Perry are just keeping their powder dry. Once the GOP settles on a nominee, that candidate and allied political-action groups will "unleash a tsunami of cash to defeat Obama."

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