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U.S. Politics

A super PAC (political action committee) backing Senator Ted Cruz targets billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in this TV attack ad.

A super PAC (political action committee) backing Senator Ted Cruz targets billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in this TV attack ad.

Keep the Promise 1

There is no escaping political advertising for U.S. voters living in key early voting states. Explore TV ads from Democratic and Republican candidates, and the charts and numbers that show why the 2016 election will likely be historic when it comes to TV ad spending and volume.

An ad airing in New Hampshire by super PAC (political action committee) supporting Marco Rubio attacks Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Jeb Bush.

The United States is a study in overwhelming political advertising force.

And 2016 – a year when both Democratic and Republican voters must choose who will be their party's standard-bearer in the November presidential election – is shaping up to break records.

Here are some key trends – and eight Democratic and Republican ads trying to break through the cable and broadcast TV noise.


The number of ads airing is up in the current U.S. primaries. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads across the U.S., says the uptick is in part because both parties are choosing their presidential candidates for next autumn, and also because of the sheer number of candidates on the Republican side.


$3.8-billion (all figures U.S.): 2012 U.S. presidential campaign TV spending

$4.4-billion: 2016 U.S. presidential campaign TV spending (estimate)

$70-million: Iowa presidential TV ad spending

$116-million: New Hampshire presidential TV ad spending

Sources: AP, Kantar Media/CMAG, Center for Public Integrity, SMG Delta

People get fed up. They pray for election day so that the advertising madness will stop. Changing the channel is a fool's errand because ads are running on every channel.

Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor in the department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations at Boston University

Rise of super PACs

A January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling paved the way for super PACs to raise unlimited funds for campaigns, so long as they do not co-ordinate their efforts with the official campaign of a political candidate.

With each election cycle, these political action committees are proving instrumental in financing TV advertising – especially on the Republican side.

In 2011, super PACs were behind two-thirds of TV ads in the GOP primaries.

In 2015, that figure is 81 per cent, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
The most potent is Right to Rise, the group backing former Florida governor Jeb Bush. It is responsible for 25 per cent of all TV ads in the current cycle.

"The super PACs have tons of money and they don't really know what to do with it – except to air ads. Very few PACs are very good at voter mobilization or micro-targeting. They're really media shops," explained Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, associate professor of government and legal studies at Maine's Bowdoin College and co-author of The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising.

Negative ads

That chart above is a breakdown for 2015. It will look very different by the time U.S. voters choose their next president on November 8, 2016. That's because negative ads will make a comeback in 2016 – and it is already happening. "I think it will be brutal. I think we'll see the majority of ads will be attack ads," said Prof. Franz

"This is really sort of a cage match now, where Trump is vulnerable. Cruz is on the rise. Bush is on the ropes. Everyone's throwing punches here to see what lands," he added. The Democratic campaign could also go negative – and if it does, it will likely be less vitriolic, Prof. Franz said.

Super PACs are likely to be behind a lot of the negative ads. The challenge for the viewer will be figuring out which super PAC backs which candidate. That kind of information is not always obvious from the ads themselves.

Eight Democratic and Republican political ads bombarding voters

1. Hillary Clinton: 'Real Progress Now'

This ad captures a subtle Clinton line of attack against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – that his policies are not realistic or achievable. Mr. Sanders is never named. The criticism is implied. The ad first aired in Iowa in late January as the Democratic race tightened.

The question is: When does Hillary Clinton go negative on Bernie Sanders in campaign ads? "Both of them will attack each other on issues rather than get personal," said Prof. Berkovitz. "It's not so much Bernie is a commie, as much as Bernie's not going to get things done," he added.

2. Bernie Sanders: 'The Problem'

This is an ad that delivers a central message of the Bernie Sanders campaign – that the economy is rigged against ordinary citizens and favours Wall Street banks and big business. This rigging of the system is possible, the ad explains, because of millions in campaign contributions and speaking fees.

That last point – about speaking fees – is an indirect reference to Hillary Clinton, who gave three speeches to Goldman Sachs after she left her position as U.S. Secretary of State. For those speeches, she was paid $675,000. As the campaign unfolds in what is a tight race, the pressure on the Sanders campaign to draw sharper, explicit contrasts with Ms. Clinton will grow.

3. Donald Trump: 'Great Again'

Billionaire developer and TV personality Donald Trump was late to the ad game. By the end of 2015, the front-runner had spent virtually nothing on political ads. But in the opening days of January 2016, the Trump campaign started airing this ad – a promise to ban Muslims entering the U.S., cutting off the head of Islamic State, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Through January, the ad aired in 12 markets and 1,757 times, according to the Political TV Ad Archive. The overwhelming target is voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

The fact-checking web site PolitiFact has pointed out that those migrants at the southern U.S.-Mexico border in the video are, in fact, in Morocco.

4. Ted Cruz (super PAC): 'Trumpcare'

In this ad that aired in Iowa and South Carolina (another one of the early voting states), a super PAC supporting Texas Senator Ted Cruz ties Donald Trump to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when it comes to the role of government in health care. "We can't afford Trumpcare," says the narrator.

The ad cuts to a CBS 60 Minutes interview from last September in which Mr. Trump appears to support big government-backed universal health care. The echoes from 2012 are clear: Republican candidate Mitt Romney was attacked by rivals for his health-care plan – dubbed "Romneycare" and enacted when he was governor of Massachusetts – proof that he wasn't conservative enough, according to his Republican critics.

5. Marco Rubio (super PAC): 'Yesterday's Over'

This ad that started airing in New Hampshire in late January is from a super PAC supporting Florida Senator Marco Rubio. It makes the generational-change argument – calling on voters to reject the old Clinton and Bush dynasties and establishment politicians.

The real target is Ms. Clinton – and in other ads the point is driven home more clearly: That the 2016 election is about defeating Hillary Clinton, and that Mr. Rubio is best able to prosecute her record.

6. John Kasich (super PAC): 'Sunrise'

A super PAC backing Ohio Governor John Kasich called New Day for America is behind this minimalist ad. Words appear on the screen against a rising sun: "When the storm has passed," it reads, "sanity and experience prevail."

Mr. Kasich is never seen or heard from – just his accomplishments listed under his name and a scroll of newspaper endorsements including the New York Times and Boston Globe. The message is simple: Mr. Kasich is the only experienced adult in the room when it comes to Republican candidates.

7. Chris Christie (super PAC): 'Banker'

Both Ohio and New Jersey governors John Kasich and Chris Christie, respectively, were largely absent in Iowa. Unable to gain traction among evangelical voters in Iowa, they are staking their campaigns on New Hampshire.

Ads from the Christie campaign and its super-PAC supporters have presented Mr. Christie as a strong future commander-in-chief who will keep the U.S. safe. But the super PAC America Leads, which backs Mr. Christie, is concerned about the growing strength of the Kasich campaign in New Hampshire.

This ad in that state depicts Mr. Kasich as a "Washington insider, Wall Street banker" and aims to bring him down a notch or two. Tying a candidate to big business and Wall Street is a common ploy in both parties. In 2012, Mitt Romney's business record became the subject of intense scrutiny.

8. Jeb Bush: 'Turn off Trump'

Jeb Bush's early campaign ads depicted him as a politician who would restore American leadership on the world stage and wipe out Islamic State – areas where the Obama presidency had failed.

When that did not improve his standing in the polls, the super PAC Right to Rise, by far the wealthiest group, unleashed a withering campaign targeting Marco Rubio. The goal was to have Mr. Bush emerge as the moderate, establishment Republican candidate.

When that didn't happen, Mr. Bush and his supporters turned their focus squarely on Donald Trump. This ad will air in New Hampshire, according to news reports. It is a highlight reel of how Mr. Trump has grabbed headlines without seemingly losing voter support. The question is – if the attack works – who gains? Will it be Mr. Bush or another Republican candidate that is not Mr. Trump?