It's Super Tuesday for the Republican presidential contenders, and 10 states are holding primaries and caucuses.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hopes he can firm up his front-runner status — a status that, an NPR analysis shows, has so far involved his campaign and a pro-Romney superPAC burying the opposition with negative messages.
NPR looked at the first 11 contests of this year — beginning in Iowa and ending in Arizona and Michigan. In those 11 election contests, the Romney campaign spent $11 million on television advertising. The pro-Romney superPAC, Restore Our Future, with its massive, unregulated contributions, spent another $21 million.
The superPAC alone spent more than the TV budgets of Romney rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, plus the message spending of the superPACs backing them.
Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University, says Florida's primary at the end of January showed the power of the pro-Romney superPAC.
"There were huge, huge Romney advantages in terms of the volume of advertising there," says Ridout, who is also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks TV advertising in the presidential race. "In spite of going into the state trailing in the polls, [Romney] managed to pull out a victory."
That was because the Restore Our Future message was — as has been almost exclusively the case — overwhelmingly negative. Ridout says it is a tone that no candidate could sustain.
"Certainly, it's been a much more negative nomination race than we've seen in past cycles, precisely because who's paying for those ads has changed," he says.
The assessment of the spending draws on two sources: first, an NPR analysis of superPAC filings with the Federal Election Commission, and second, data on the candidate campaigns' TV spending by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, as analyzed by the Washington Post and the Wesleyan Media Project.
The outlines of the race are well-known. The pro-Romney superPAC crippled Gingrich in Iowa, but it missed Santorum and he squeezed into a first-place victory.
In South Carolina, Gingrich, Santorum and their superPACs outgunned the Romney forces. Romney finished third, but he won both Florida and Nevada with torrents of attack ads.
Santorum took Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, which the Romney side neglected. And in Michigan, where the Romney and Santorum forces both spent heavily, Romney barely squeaked by.
Only in Maine, where nobody advertised, did Romney win without going negative.
"These surges have been driven by voters fluctuating in who they support, though seemingly not supporting Romney," says Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. He says front-runners have to tear down the opposition.
"The message from the Romney campaign has to be 'why you're making a mistake going with this person that's an alternative to me,' " he says.
But to others, Romney's juggernaut of negative ads looks like a weakness. They say the big spending has trashed his opponents, often in lopsided spending battles, but hasn't done anything to improve Romney's favorable ratings.
Last month, at the final GOP candidates' debate, Santorum reminded voters that President Obama's campaign will have plenty of cash to go after the Republican nominee.
"Maybe you want a candidate who is not going to be able to win an election by beating the tar out of his opponent, spending four and five to one in order to win an election," Santorum said.
But Marquette's Franklin isn't so sure. He says any establishment candidate would probably be in this situation given the conflicts within the GOP.
Romney is actually in better shape, Franklin says, than he might be otherwise, thanks to his campaign budget and the heavily financed pro-Romney superPAC.
"He benefits from those advantages. Whether the weaknesses that he shows, though, are his own or reflect the divisions in the party, I think it's got to be a good bit of both," he says.
And when it comes to closing those divisions by knocking his opponents out of the race, all of those negative ads could turn out to be counterproductive.