Nati Harnik / AP

Hillary Clinton dominating presidential race’s TV ad war

Ahead of Democrats’ first debate, front-runner has been buying up airwaves

Democratic presidential candidates will enjoy some free face time Tuesday in Las Vegas for their first nationally televised debate, but tenuous front-runner Hillary Clinton has already spent considerable time on the airwaves, thanks to her prodigious advertising budget.

The Clinton campaign has bought and aired nearly 5,500 TV ads this year, as of Oct. 5, targeting voters in the early presidential caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking firm. 

That accounts for nearly 1 in 4 TV ads aired so far in the 2016 presidential race by any source, Democratic or Republican.

That includes any of nearly two dozen other presidential candidates, political parties and political action committees. It also includes big-dollar super PACs and nonprofit groups, which, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for political candidates.

Measured another way: Clinton’s campaign has aired more TV ads than the campaigns of Republicans Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio combined.

Consider that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — so far, Clinton’s main Democratic primary rival, who has recently risen in polls, especially in New Hampshire — has not yet aired a single TV ad while drawing huge crowds to campaign events.

Nor have the campaigns of Clinton’s other Democratic challengers who will debate her on Tuesday: former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia — although a super PAC backing O’Malley, Generation Forward PAC, has aired a few dozen ads in Iowa.

Clinton — a former first lady, senator and secretary of state — certainly doesn’t need TV ads to help in the name recognition department. A Gallup poll this summer concluded, unsurprisingly, that Democratic voters are almost universally familiar with her. On the Republican side, only Donald Trump challenges the Clinton’s familiarity.

Her problem? Many people just don’t like her. Gallup in September placed her overall favorability rating at 41 percent — the lowest it has been since early 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s first term and amid their efforts to pass universal health care legislation.

A number of factors explain why.

Hillary Clinton has endured massive fallout from her use of a private email server as secretary of state. She has faced lingering questions about her actions before and after the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three associates in Benghazi, Libya. She has gone weeks at a time without conducting unscripted interviews, feeding concerns that she’s unshakably secretive.

Her campaign has also at times appeared ham-handed. It paradoxically revealed, for example, that she was planning to become more spontaneous — earning her more than a few snickers and barbs.

Each Clinton TV spot until this week largely focused on her, generally casting her as decisive and visionary, Kantar Media/CMAG data indicate.

Many ads tout her work on health care matters, student debt, equal pay and other perceived concerns of people she has called “everyday Americans.”

One ad features her new granddaughter. “You should not have to be the grandchild of a former president to know you can make it in America,” Clinton says in the spot as upbeat music plays. “That will be my mission as president — to make sure I do everything I can, every single day, to knock down the barriers, to open up the doors, so that every child has a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.”

Save for a few vague swipes at unnamed Republicans, not one Clinton-sponsored ad through Monday pilloried Sanders or chided Trump or contrasted Clinton’s record with those of Republican candidates such Bush or Rubio.

There’s some evidence that her Clinton-first advertising strategy has helped her earn prospective voters’ admiration as she attempts to re-re-re-reintroduce herself to a body politic already well acquainted with her decades-long political career.

While her net favorability rating among Democrats declined throughout August and much of September, it has ticked upward of late and most recently stands at 53 percent.

“She’s the least-known best-known figure in America, and she’s trying to stop the bleeding at this point,” said John Carroll, a Boston University mass media professor who specializes in political messaging. “She’s also trying to prove to the public that she’s not a hologram, that she has dimension.”

The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

She hasn’t completely received a free pass when it comes to opponents’ paid media, and the road ahead is about to become more crowded.

Democratic presidential candidate Larry Lessig, a Harvard University professor who’s largely running on one issue — campaign finance reform — went up this week with a TV ad that attacks not Clinton or Sanders but Rubio. It doesn’t appear that Lessig, who entered the presidential race last month, will qualify for Tuesday’s Democratic debate.

Meanwhile, a political committee urging Vice President Joe Biden to run for the Democratic nomination has invested six-figure amounts this month into TV ads.

Generation Forward PAC, the pro-O’Malley super PAC, has spent about $156,000 on TV ads, digital ads, mailers, T-shirts and other messages designed to boost him, according to its filings with the Federal Election Commission. The Baltimore Sun reports, the super PAC will be spending an additional $215,000 on an ad buy.

Republican groups have spent about $2 million so far this year on non-TV messages opposing Clinton, such as digital ads and emails, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Expect Clinton to smack back. This week she aired an ad that attacked a Republican by name, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who tied a Republican-led committee investigating her actions in the Benghazi attack to her declining poll numbers.

The timing for Clinton was prime, if coincidental, as McCarthy’s bid to become the next speaker of the House dramatically crumbled Thursday

Her campaign has raised about $48 million, as of June 30, while Sanders’ campaign has collected about $15 million. They pulled in about $25 million each from July to September, their campaigns announced.

Official third-quarter campaign finance filings for all candidates must be submitted to the FEC on Thursday.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.

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