Tim Scott’s Iowa Play Is Working

by Jacob Rubashkin June 26, 2023 · 10:35 AM EDT

A little over a month into his presidential campaign, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has managed to do something no other hopeful has yet accomplished: show some momentum.

Seven months before the Iowa caucuses, the 2024 Republican presidential primary field is largely set, and the dynamics of the race feel stubbornly rigid. Former President Donald Trump is the undisputed frontrunner, with substantial leads in both national and state-level polling. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is in a clear second place, and is the only non-Trump candidate to receive double-digit support in national polls. 

The rest of the field — Scott included — is crowded in the low-to-mid single digits.

But Scott has two financial advantages over almost all of the other candidates. He entered the race with a massive stockpile of cash, saved up from his three Senate campaigns, and he isn’t relying on a super PAC at this stage of the race. 

On his first day in the race, Scott had access to the $22 million sitting in his federal campaign account, left over from his Senate run last year. By comparison, on March 31, fellow candidate Nikki Haley reported just $4 million in cash-on-hand, and even Trump’s $14 million war chest was significantly smaller than Scott’s. 

Scott hasn’t shied away from flexing his financial muscle, shelling out $2.4 million for paid media in Iowa and New Hampshire since his late-May launch.

And while Trump and DeSantis have both ceded their paid media efforts to friendly super PACs, Scott is spending directly from his campaign account. That gives him access to significantly lower advertising rates than super PACs.

For instance, in the Des Moines media market, both Scott and the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down spent roughly $390,000 on broadcast TV ads between May 22 and June 27. But when measured by gross ratings points — the industry standard for advertising impact — Scott’s purchase was four times larger than the DeSantis super PAC’s: 3,913 points to 968 points. Each of Scott’s dollars had quadruple the value of the super PAC.

Scott’s paid media push hasn’t affected his standing in national polls; he entered the race polling at 2 percent and now registers 3 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average.

That isn’t much of a surprise. Unlike Never Back Down and pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc, Scott hasn’t advertised in South Carolina, Nevada, or nationally.

But in first-in-the-nation Iowa, Scott has been the top advertiser on broadcast TV over the last month, and recent polling suggests he is on the rise.

A June 10-12 likely voter survey conducted by McLaughlin & Associates for the Trump campaign found Scott in third place in Iowa with 9 percent, behind only Trump (51 percent) and DeSantis (19 percent) but ahead of former Vice President Mike Pence and fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador.

That’s an 8-point jump from Scott’s position in McLaughlin’s previous Iowa survey for the Trump campaign. Fielded April 27-30 (after Scott had formed an exploratory committee but prior to his official launch), that poll registered Scott at just 1 percent, behind not only Trump and DeSantis but also Pence, Haley, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (who is not running) and biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy.

Two polls from GOP firm National Research Inc. commissioned by the Trump-supporting website American Greatness display a similar trend. National Research’s May 9-11 poll of Iowa found Scott with just 1 percent support, behind Trump, DeSantis, Haley, Pence, and Ramaswamy, and tied with former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. A month later, National Research polled again and found Scott had moved to third place behind Trump and DeSantis, albeit with just 5 percent of the vote.

In both the McLaughlin and National Research polls, Scott was the only candidate to register an increase in support. All other candidates saw their numbers stay stable — or fall.

Two other recent polls also suggest Scott has nudged himself into third place in Iowa. A June 3-6 survey from GOP firm Victory Insights found his support at 6 percent, behind Trump and DeSantis. And a May 30-June 1 WPAi poll commissioned by the pro-DeSantis super PAC had Scott in third with 7 percent. Unlike McLaughlin and National Research, neither pollster had included Scott in their earlier surveys.

With Trump and DeSantis dominating the national conversation, candidates such as Scott have to find smaller-scale ways to break into the top tier. For Scott, whose campaign is centered on Christian faith and economic opportunity, gaining steam in Iowa is a logical path to pursue.

The question is whether he can maintain the momentum he is starting to build, by cracking double digits in Iowa and drawing a second look from voters looking for an alternative to both Trump and DeSantis. His financial heft will help — as it currently stands, he is set to be the top spender in the GOP primary from now until August, and he’s getting outside support from a super PAC funded by Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

But the airwaves and the GOP field are both getting more crowded. Late entrances by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former Rep. Will Hurd continue to diversify the primary (Scott and Hurd are the only two Black major candidates). 

And North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a billionaire, is already spending big on TV with his positive economic message. He recently supplanted Scott as the top advertiser in Iowa, and like the South Carolina senator, Burgum has access to the coveted lower advertising rates — even though he is self-funding his campaign rather than using money he raised from others.