Final ad figures from Iowa show that a pro-Mitt Romney "super PAC" outspent Romney's own presidential campaign by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, with almost all the money dedicated to harsh attack ads against Newt Gingrich that succeeded in causing the former Speaker's poll numbers to drop precipitously.
Restore Our Future, the super PAC founded by three former Romney political aides, spent $2.8 million on ads in Iowa, nearly twice as much as the $1.5 million spent by Romney's own campaign, according to figures compiled for NBC News by Smart Media Group Delta, a media ad tracking firm.
When the ads began running, on Dec. 8, Gingrich was number one in the GOP field in Iowa with 26 percent, according to an NBC News-Marist poll conducted that week. By the end of the month, his support had been cut in half -- to 13 percent -- a dramatic drop that some political analysts say vindicates the power of attack ads and more broadly, the clout of super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from wealthy donors and corporations.
"The super PACs are not accountable to anybody so they can say what they want to say and it's not going to blow back on the campaign," said Scott Reed, a top GOP campaign consultant who is not affiliated with any of the current campaigns. "The super PAC can really do the dirty work on the advertising, and the direct mail and the robocalls."
Technically, super PACs are supposed to be independent of the presidential campaigns and not "coordinate" their activities. But critics say that those rules are hard to define given the multiple connections between the super PACs and the candidates and their campaigns. Not only is Restore Our Future run by former Romney political advisers, Romney himself spoke at one of the group's fundraising events last summer.
The Restore Our Future ads included blistering attacks on Gingrich's ethics, his profits from consulting for Freddie Mac, his appearance in an ad with Nancy Pelosi on the need to address climate change, and his flip-flops on issues.
What hasn't got much attention is the man behind the ads: Larry McCarthy, a veteran GOP media man and a master of negative campaigning who is best known for crafting the original Willie Horton ads against Michael Dukakis in 1988. He is one of the founders of Restore Our Future.
The Smart Media tracking numbers show that a pro-Rick Perry super PAC, run by Mike Toomey, a veteran Austin lobbyist and close political adviser to Perry, spent $1.6 million on ads in Iowa. This was not as much as the $4.3 million spent by the Perry campaign, however. The Red White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC, spent $530,000 on ads -- more than 10 times more than the $30,000 spent by the Santorum campaign itself.