Will Jeb Bush's TV blitz add up?

Even unlimited money might not buy struggling candidates N.H. primary votes



Money can’t buy happiness, and in New Hampshire, it might not buy enough votes for some struggling presidential candidates, either.

Chief among them: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

For months, Bush and his supportive super PAC, Right to Rise USA, have saturated Granite State airwaves — sponsoring roughly one third of all TV ads in the Republican race.

In the past week alone, the Bush campaign-super PAC duo aired more than 1,400 TV ads in New Hampshire, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of broadcast and national cable data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

That’s more than any other Republican candidate’s operation.

But Bush, who’s very future as a presidential candidate may hinge on his New Hampshire performance, has barely seen his pre-primary poll numbers crack double digits.

Showing a tinge of regret over outsourcing his messaging to a super PAC, Bush said on Monday that he would “eliminate” the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which allowed super PACs to proliferate in the first place.

“This is a ridiculous system we have now where you have campaigns that struggle to raise money directly, and they can't be held accountable for the spending of the super PAC that's their affiliate,” Bush told CNN on Monday. Bush added that campaigns should be permitted to accept unlimited political contributions.

Right to Rise USA, which as a super PAC can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, has indeed been Bush’s main TV ad messenger, airing more than seven in 10 of all pro-Bush ads in New Hampshire.

“If your message isn’t resonating and your candidate isn’t a strong one, no amount of ads will take them over the finish line,” said Erika Fowler Franklin, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Cutting through the noise

That’s not to say advertising does not hold some significance so far in election cycle.

In a crowded race with so many voices, it’s not always so simple to be heard.

“When you have that much advertising and that much noise in a small state, it’s hard to know what even gets through,” said Scott Spradling, president of New Hampshire-based political consulting firm Spradling Group and former anchor and political director for WMUR-TV. “Except for the TV stations … there are diminishing returns when you have so many candidates doing that much advertising.”

Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have nevertheless pressed forward with an ad blitz: Each have aired more ads in New Hampshire than any Republican presidential ad sponsor.

Head-to-head, Clinton has aired slightly more ads in New Hampshire than Sanders, although Sanders appears poised to defeat her by a significant margin.

For Sanders, it may have been more about the quality of his ads than their quantity.

Research firm Ace Metrix is measuring every political ad for effectiveness by surveying 500 people demographically aligned with the U.S. Census.

“[Sanders’s ads] are not policy specific, and they are hard to argue with,” said Mark Bryant, vice president of Ace Metrix Politics. Sanders’ most successful ads center on topics such as social security, health care and affordable public education.

Unlike Republican presidential candidates, Sanders and Clinton have kept their advertising positive for the time being — in contrast with their recent debates with one another.

TV ads sponsored by Sanders and Clinton typically tout their own platforms, personal histories and campaign promises.

Clinton’s supportive super PACs also have yet to target Sanders, despite pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action raising $25.3 million during the second half of 2016, with $6 million coming from billionaire George Soros.

The role of going negative

A crowded Republican field has led to more attack ads as candidates struggle to remain viable.

In New Hampshire last week, about two in five TV ads sponsored by a Republican candidate or supportive super PAC attacked an opponent, either in part or full, the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data indicates.

Bush’s campaign and Right to Rise USA super PAC engaged in heavy negative advertising last week, as did a super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, supporting Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (Rubio’s own campaign aired more than 700 ads with a decidedly positive tone.)

Then there’s Donald Trump, who didn’t air a single TV ad in New Hampshire until 2016.

But when Trump finally did, his opponents and affiliated outside groups immediately pounced with nasty, anti-Trump ads of their own.

So Trump struck back, inundating the first-in-the-nation primary state with more than 3,500 ads between January and February, Kantar Media/CMAG data indicates. More than a third of Trump’s ads aired during the past week, many promoting the billionaire businessman, but others lampooning Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who edged him out last week in Iowa’s caucus.

Trump still remains a frequent target in ads sponsored by super PACs — most prominently, by the pro-Bush Right to Rise USA.

He wasn’t only targeted by candidate-specific groups: one super PAC — for now — is entirely dedicated to discrediting Trump.

Formed by Katie Packer, the former deputy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, Our Principles PAC spent about $2.5 million in a last-ditch effort to knock Trump down in Iowa and New Hampshire polls.

“With voting almost here, Donald Trump has a secret,” says a narrator in one Our Principles PAC ad, which casts Trump as a liberal. “Trump doesn't want you to know he supports a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.”

Trump wasn’t the only candidate on the receiving end of attacks.

In an attack ad flurry, pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC targeted Bush, Right to Rise USA jumped on Rubio for relentlessly repeating talking points at Saturday’s Republican debate and America Leads — aligned with Gov. Chris Christie — criticized Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich’s banking history.

Though viewers may bemoan negative ads, they are predisposed to pay attention to negativity, said Fowler at the Wesleyan Media Project.

“This translates to benefit democracy,” Fowler said. “Negativity helps to inform and engage.”

While spending more on ads may not earn presidential hopefuls a golden ticket to the White House, TV ads still play a role — and aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

“TV ads are more likely to move the needle overall while digital ads can reach a niche audience,” Fowler said. “The campaign toolbox is just becoming more diverse."

What’s next

Republican candidates are already laying groundwork in South Carolina, airing ads and reserving TV spots ahead of the Feb. 20 GOP primary.

In January and February, candidates and affiliated outside groups aired about 14,500 ads. Rubio — with the help of his super PAC — is running the most ads, and pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC reported on Tuesday spending just over $1 million in ads there, according to FEC filings.

But the field has been slow to peer beyond South Carolina and Nevada’s late February caucus to March 1 — Super Tuesday — when a dozen presidential nominating contests will be waged.

Of them, Texas is the biggest prize: On the Republican side, 155 delegates are up for grabs in this state where the winner does not take all. (Delegates there are awarded on a proportional basis.)

Bush is so far the only candidate in Texas — Republican or Democrat — with a notable television advertising presence.

From today through Feb. 29, his Right to Rise USA super PAC has already booked more than $2.2 million worth of TV ads on major network affiliate stations in Texas’ top three markets: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Communications Commission records.

The super PAC has also booked airtime in Texas’ state capital, Austin, where Cruz — among Bush’s presidential campaign foils — built his political acumen as Texas’ solicitor general.

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.

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