The Republican presidential ad wars were not supposed to end like this.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — once the most well-funded GOP presidential contender with allies that consistently outspent his foes — has failed to keep up the pace in Iowa, the only state where he can now afford to advertise at all.
Spots supporting former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, long mocked by rivals for her lean bank accounts, now dominate the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And former president Donald Trump, who spent last year vilifying DeSantis, has redirected his attack ads toward Haley in New Hampshire, where his supporters are matching every dollar she spends in the hopes of denying her a springboard to her home state of South Carolina.
The late scramble in ad strategies comes just as undecided voters in the first two states are finally tuning into the race. In mid-November, all three candidates and their supportive super PACs were spending about $1 million a week in Iowa, according to AdImpact, the media tracking firm. Now Haley’s forces are spending more than $3 million, while the DeSantis crew follows with $2.3 million and Trump, who has been dominating local polls, invested $1.2 million.
A separate battle has been taking place in New Hampshire, where Trump’s and Haley’s allies have been jockeying for undecided voters in a contest whose outcome may ultimately be more decisive than Iowa. Since early December, both campaigns and their supporters have been growing their investment in the state, effectively matching dollar for dollar to each spend more than $2 million over the last full week.
DeSantis — whose allies have spent more on television than any other effort — has been sidelined in the first primary state, the result of a massive miscalculation about his team’s fundraising ability in the second half of 2023 and a mislaid bet on summer and early fall advertising in an attempt to stop his polling slide.
“If you are not on the air, you are not in the conversation, so that is important,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire Republican political consultant who worked for the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). “You have to have something good to say, and you save it to the end when most people are paying attention.”
DeSantis’s strategic stumble has been a primary focus of his opponents’ ads, with SFA Fund, a PAC supporting Haley, devoting much of its ad time on spots that highlight the dysfunction of the DeSantis campaign as a way of undermining his central pitch of being a more competent leader that Trump. The group has spent $1.2 million to air an ad called “Dumpster Fire” more than 1,000 times in Iowa that is focused on the Florida governor’s stumbles. Haley is also receiving late ad support from Americans for Prosperity Action.
“Phony and failing. A weaker nominee than Trump,” the narrator of another SFA spot says. That ad has run more than 1,900 times, almost entirely in Iowa, backed by $1.8 million, according to AdImpact.
DeSantis has responded by shifting his campaign message to cast Haley as the puppet of deep-pocketed donors — an ironic attack from a governor who has long boasted of the advantages he has gained from his own wealthy supporters.
DeSantis said last week that his “bumper sticker message” for caucus attendees is “very simple”: “Donald Trump is running on his issues. Nikki Haley is running on her donors’ issues. I’m running on your issues.”
The pro-DeSantis advertising effort in Iowa has been split between four groups and the campaign in the closing weeks, a result of an implosion at Never Back Down, the super PAC that has spent most of its money in 2023 in support of his presidential bid. They include a new group, called Fight Right, that has been running negative spots against Haley focused on taxes and her China record. Another group called Good Fight has been running positive spots about DeSantis.
The governor’s effort to attack Haley has been aided by Trump and his primary super PAC, MAGA Inc., which has turned its focus toward Haley since Christmas. Those spots include an attack on her record on taxes and an attack on her record on border enforcement, which one Trump spot compares to that of President Biden.
Trump advisers have signaled that they plan to continue attacking her in paid advertising, with a primary focus on border record and immigration. Haley’s advisers have pushed back on the idea that she is weak on the border. She has said in recent campaign appearances that she supports banning people from terrorism-prone countries from visiting the United States.
“Donald Trump probably doesn’t remember that Nikki Haley passed one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country in 2011, because he was still a New York City liberal,” Haley communications director Nachama Soloveichik said in a statement Friday.
As the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary approach, attention is increasingly shifting toward paid advertising. Academic studies of advertising effects show that such advertising has a greater impact in primaries and other races where voters are not fully invested.
“The GOP primary is exactly the type of race where advertising can make more of a difference than it would in October 2024, if it’s a rematch of Trump vs. Biden,” Vanderbilt political scientist John Sides wrote in an email. “This is another reason being outspent as the Iowa and New Hampshire contests approach is a disadvantage for DeSantis.”
Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report.