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Will big money spent on TV ads pay off for 2016 candidates?

January 7, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Political advertising could break records in 2016: some experts estimate Americans will see $4.4 billion spent on TV ads. But will all that spending pay off for presidential candidates trying to rise in the polls? Political director Lisa Desjardins offers a look at some of their strategies and Gwen Ifill learns more from Matea Gold of The Washington Post.

GWEN IFILL: One sign that presidential primaries are near, candidates are starting to ramp up their TV ad spending.

Political director Lisa Desjardins takes a look at the mountain of cash being spent on ads, and whether it’s worth it.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate: I’m Marco Rubio.

LISA DESJARDINS: The much-used and often reviled campaign ad faces a real test in 2016. First, the sheer numbers could break records: Some experts estimate we will see an astonishing $4.4 billion in political TV ads. But ads so far have not brought results for some.

JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate: Serious times require serious leadership.

LISA DESJARDINS: Republican Jeb Bush has spent more on ads than any other candidate, but he is stalled in fifth or sixth place.

PETER FENN, Democratic Strategist: I have to say it’s pay more, get less. TV advertising is not nearly as effective as it once was, especially high-level races.

LISA DESJARDINS: Peter Fenn is president of Fenn Communications and has worked in over 300 campaigns.

PETER FENN: Jeb Bush’s idea initially was to buy a lot of advertising, to use the $100 million that he’d raise for the super PAC and to flood Iowa and flood New Hampshire.

LISA DESJARDINS: It has not worked yet. But front-runner Donald Trump is trying ads nonetheless, launching his first this week.

NARRATOR: Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism.

LISA DESJARDINS: With dark colors and striking music, the spot talks of fears, but it may also address one of Trump’s worries.

PETER FENN: I think his fear is that he needs a strong turnout. If people don’t see him in paid ads, don’t see him going all out in these states, it might discourage some of his voters from voting.

LISA DESJARDINS: Another ad with strong tones from Ted Cruz using a visual metaphor at the border.

SEN. TED CRUZ, Republican Presidential Candidate: I understand that when the mainstream covers immigration, it often doesn’t see it as an economic issue.

PETER FENN: Cruz, I think with his ad this time of people dressed in suits and women in high heels walking across what would be the border, visually, people now are looking for more creativity in their advertising.

LISA DESJARDINS: Contrast those hard-hitting ads in the crowded GOP race with the approach in the smaller Democratic field, which is more biographical.

NARRATOR: Praised as one of America’s best mayors, who governed as a pragmatist.

HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: When I think about why I’m doing this, I think about my mother, Dorothy.

LISA DESJARDINS: Both of those got big play online. But Fenn says 70 percent of campaign ad dollars still go to on-air.

PETER FENN: My sense is, this is changing, but we’re still going to see, in this election cycle, television will be king.

LISA DESJARDINS: But for all the dollars it brings, we don’t yet know how much television will influence the choice for president.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.

GWEN IFILL: We follow the money now with Matea Gold. She’s a national political reporter for The Washington Post.

Matea, you have covered a lot of these campaigns, as have I. We’re not going to say how old we are. But compare this to last cycle. How is the money being raised differently and spent differently?

MATEA GOLD, The Washington Post: So, what we have seen in this cycle is the real full flowering of the super PAC effect, and nearly every presidential candidate, with the exception of Bernie Sanders and most recently Donald Trump, are running with the support of super PACs this time.

And that’s changed everything. That’s changed the way they have gotten in the race, how they have raised money, and it’s changed the way money is being spent. And already through mid-December, we saw more than 40 percent more ads on TV than in the last cycle at that point. And eight out of 10 of those ads were by outside groups.

And as Lisa pointed out in her piece, it’s not biographical. It’s not let me tell you who I am anymore.

MATEA GOLD: Well, one of the things that I think we’re seeing in the Republican contest is, because it is so incredibly competitive, and it’s really been focused on issues about terrorism and ISIS, that those issues have really come to the fore in the advertising much sooner than I think you usually see at this point in a campaign.

GWEN IFILL: So who benefits so far, especially in the crowded Republican field, from this approach? For whom is this approach resonating?

MATEA GOLD: Well, I think there is a really big question about whether the super PAC is going to be the real panacea that some people thought it was going to be in this election.

We already saw two candidates, Scott Walker and Rick Perry, forced out of the contest, even though they had millions of dollars left in their super PACs. There is a real question about whether you can succeed with the support of super PACs or whether you need really more substantial resources in your campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Well, so then, explain for us just one example.

When Jeb Bush — you wrote about this in a big piece in The Washington Post this week. When Jeb Bush got into the field, people thought he was going to be able to do what his brother did, clear the field by the sheer amount of money he raised. He raised the money, but he clearly didn’t clear the field. What happened?

MATEA GOLD: Money is very different in this election than in past elections.

In the past, it’s been seen as a predictor of success. When money comes, there’s also a sense that there is a grassroots support behind that. Now that donors that are incredibly wealthy can give these massive donations, it’s not necessarily indicative of any deeper support.

So, one of the challenges I think that Jeb Bush has had is translating the support he has among the millionaire class, who really put in amazing amount of resources in the super PAC, to support on the ground. And so while he had a huge amount of money, other candidates also had their own billionaires supporting them, and they weren’t scared away by his coffers.

GWEN IFILL: Another example, Ben Carson was raising money hand over fist for a while. And it was reflecting his standing in the polls. Now his standing in the polls has dropped. Is it because he didn’t spend the money correctly?

MATEA GOLD: Well, he still is raising a substantial amount. He raised $20 million in the last quarter.

One of the things that online fund-raising allows you to do is reach out to a cohort of non-traditional donors. These aren’t professional donors that get involved in party politics. Ben Carson brought a lot of new people into the process. And it looks like a lot of them are still giving him money.

GWEN IFILL: But how is he spending it?

MATEA GOLD: Well, a lot of that money has gone back into raising more money. And we are going to get some more details about his finances when the reports come out at the end of this month. But that is going to be a real indicator of a campaign’s success, how much cash they actually have left on hand heading into this last final stretch.

GWEN IFILL: We talked about the billionaires. What is it? Bernie Sanders calls them the millionaires and billionaires.

Who are they this time? Are they spending their money differently? Last time, I remember Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich in the race simply by writing a check for a long time, and I think also Rick Santorum. And last time, we saw Ron Burkle, another millionaire, giving money to the Clintons. This time, he is supporting John Kasich, at least for now.

That seems to be a different — I don’t know, just a different way of organizing this.

MATEA GOLD: One of the things that’s so interesting is that the donor class has expanded. We’re seeing new names that are not your traditional political givers.

Some of the biggest backers of Senator Ted Cruz are a family in Texas, the Wilks brothers, who have made a lot of money through fracking. And they have put together $15 million worth of contributions into a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz.

And so a lot of folks who are not bold-faced names in the political world are getting engaged, in part because there are these new mechanisms for them to do so.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and here is something that is completely different than anything we have seen before, which is, of course, is the rise of Donald Trump before he had even spent a lot of money. And even though now he’s starting to put ads on the air, it seems like he’s changed the formula as well.

MATEA GOLD: The Trump impact has completely transformed how money is being spent and whether it’s even effective this time.

His rivals complain he’s basically getting free airtime. And so their paid media is not going to be as potent, because he’s getting even more airtime just getting on cable news. That is going to be a real question. He’s started to spend money now, but will he actually be able to succeed largely through earned media?

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that the candidates are scrambling to counter, specifically to do with Trump or specifically to do with his approach, by maybe, I don’t know, talking about issues?

MATEA GOLD: The issues are different in each part of the race, and obviously the Republicans right now are trying to really outdo each other with warnings about the threats facing America.

That seems to be consuming the Republican electorate right now. I mean, concerns about ISIS and terrorism have overtaken, we have found, concerns about taxes and health care in the polls. So, whereas Obamacare looked like it was going to be a driving issue, right now, that’s not something that gets as much attention, at least not on the air.

GWEN IFILL: Who does that benefit and who does that hurt so far, at least in fund-raising?

MATEA GOLD: Well, in fund-raising, we’re going to see at the end of this month, but I think Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have had the most success in their campaigns, and Donald Trump is doing the best in the polls.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, we will see how it shakes out when people actually start to vote very soon.


GWEN IFILL: Matea Gold of The Washington Post, thank you.

MATEA GOLD: Always a pleasure. Thanks.