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Ad Wars 2016: Can Marco Rubio Attack His Way Into Contention?

Desperate for a boost, the senator from Florida is pursuing a risky strategy. Plus: This week’s ad round-up.

Marco Rubio for President

January is the cruelest month of a presidential election cycle. This year, with several serious candidates still in the race and the clock winding down to Iowa, the contenders are dumping millions onto the airwaves to attack their closest rivals. And nobody is attacking as often, or as fiercely, as Marco Rubio and his allied groups. Rubio’s already spent $32.6 million on television ads, including the 7,000 spots he has reserved in Iowa in the months before its caucuses—while frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz combined have spent just $8 million. 

The most audacious of Rubio’s ads debuted in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina this week. A black-and-white image of Cruz’s head appears on screen, his head framed in the maple leaf of the Canadian flag. “What’s Canadian about Ted Cruz?” the narrator asks, as the Canadian national anthem plays in the background. “His tax plan.” The ad, sponsored by Conservative Solutions PAC, the outside group allied with the senator, cleverly plays footsie with the theory that Cruz, who was born in Calgary, Alberta, is ineligible to run for president, while also questioning his commitment to slashing taxes. 

Rubio has aired four positive ads in recent days, too—glossy spots in which he talks earnestly about faith, abortion, the looming threat of Islamic terrorism, and uniting the Republican Party. But over the last week, Conservative Solutions has hit Cruz three times; along with the maple leaf ad, another hard-hitting spot accused Cruz of calculatedly changing his stances on “immigration, Syrian refugees, ethanol, trade.” (According to the Washington Post, young Rubio staffers were trying to hammer the point home by handing out calculators to reporters at campaign events in New Hampshire this week.) 

Cruz hasn’t been the sole target: Over the last three weeks, Rubio and his allies have also landed punches on Chris Christie (a “high tax, Common Core, liberal energy loving, Obamacare Medicaid expanding” governor), Jeb Bush (a “desperate” candidate with a “train wreck campaign”), and Hillary Clinton (“someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi”). Of Rubio’s chief rivals, only Trump has been spared the rod. 

Rubio’s strategy is easy to understand. “Trailing candidates need to shake up the race, need the media attention. They go on the attack,” says Washington State University professor Travis Ridout, who runs the Wesleyan Media project. The boyish Republican, stuck in third place with 11 percent support in national polls—well behind Cruz and Trump—needs a boost, and fast.

But going so negative carries risks—especially with Cruz, whose support Rubio needs to cut into, continuing to run ads that are almost exclusively positive. (The same goes for the constellation of Cruz super PACs.) A new spot out this week, for instance, featured regular folk testifying that Cruz had carried through on his promises to voters. Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, moonlighted in another, telling voters Cruz would “kill a duck and put them in a pot and make him a good duck gumbo.”

In a sense, the two senators have been switching roles: the charismatic young Floridian with the uplifting rhetoric and boyish charm unleashing savage attacks on the airwaves, while the Texan reviled on Capitol Hill for very publicly sabotaging his fellow Republicans is mostly staying positive. 

Rubio’s campaign may well believe that it has no choice. But his attack strategy runs the risk of undercutting one of his main assets: the young, hopeful persona that had some calling him “Republican Barack Obama.” 

We’ll know soon whether the turn from optimist to attack dog pays off for Rubio. If it doesn’t, he may wind up regretting that he abandoned his previous, more uplifting strategy in the final stretch before Iowa and New Hampshire. 


Marco Rubio: “Tax Plan”

Type: Attack

Who paid for it? Conservative Solutions, the super PAC aligned with Marco Rubio

Reach: Conservative Solutions announced this ad Tuesday along with two others (see below). All three will air in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

Impact: This ad is so silly you’d think Donald Trump was responsible for it. With clips from the Canadian national anthem and maple leaves scattered throughout the frame—not to mention the photo of Ted Cruz with a Canadian flag superimposed on his face—the spot seems aimed at fanning the rumors that Cruz, born in Canada to an America mother, is ineligible to run for president. 

Marco Rubio: “Calculated”

Type: Attack

Who paid for it? Conservative Solutions, the super PAC aligned with Marco Rubio

Reach: Conservative Solutions announced this ad Tuesday along with two others. All three will air in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

Impact: This ad tries, somewhat halfheartedly, to label Ted Cruz a flip-flopper on “immigration, Syrian refugees, ethanol, trade, you name it.” While that charge falls somewhat flat without specifics to back it up, this ad may have hit on a better way to attack Ted Cruz: Portray him as an opportunistic and calculated politician. 

Ted Cruz: “Cruz Commander”

Type: Whimsical

Who paid for it? Cruz campaign

Reach: The new $700,000 ad will run on both radio and TV in Iowa next week during Duck Dynasty and the NFL playoffs.

Impact: Harvard graduate Ted Cruz has enlisted Phil Robertson, the bearded patriarch on Duck Dynasty, in his quest to look like a man of the people. This ad features what must be one of the best lines to air on television this election cycle: “Would they kill a duck and put them in a pot and make him a good duck gumbo?” 

Ted Cruz: “Record, Not Rhetoric”

Type: Inspirational

Who paid for it? Keep the Promise I, the super PAC backing Ted Cruz

Reach: Keep the Promise I more than doubled its previous ad purchases this week, making a $2.5 million investment in Iowa and South Carolina television, where this ad will air this week and next. 

Impact: This ad praises Cruz for carrying through on his promises to voters by sticking up to Democratic and Republican elites in Washington. With its soaring music and cheering crowds, it should work to galvanize his supporters, firing them up and turning them out before the Iowa caucuses. 

Marco Rubio: “Life”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Rubio campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa. This week it racked up more than 1,500 likes on Twitter after Rubio tweeted it from his official account—more than any of his other new ads received this week. 

Impact: Rubio hopes to make inroads with Iowa evangelicals with this ad aimed at the “right-to-life” crowd. The clips of smiling toddlers are a little heavy-handed, sure, but they’ll play well in the socially conservative Hawkeye State, where voters have wondered whether Rubio would pursue socially conservative doctrine as president—especially after Paul Singer, a New York billionaire who has promoted LGBT rights, announced last fall he would back Rubio. 

Donald Trump: “Our Country”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Trump campaign

Reach: Cost $1.1 million in Iowa and $1 million in New Hampshire. 

Impact: Donald Trump ticks off a laundry list of his priorities: “We are going to fix our healthcare, we are going to take care of our vets, we are going to fix our military, we are going to strengthen our borders.” You have to applaud his succinctness. 

Hillary Clinton: “This House”

Type: Biographical 

Who paid for it? Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa and New Hampshire—with slightly different endings in those two states, according to the New York Times

Impact: This ad succinctly sums up the case for why Hillary Clinton would be the most effective president. After listing her accomplishments as secretary of state, senator, and first lady, the narrator says: “If you want a president who knows how to keep America safe and build a stronger economy, Hillary’s the choice.” 

Bernie Sanders: “Defend This Nation”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Impact: Sanders sets himself apart from Clinton, whose reputation for hawkish foreign policy has haunted her in past elections, asserting that he would “end the quagmire of perpetual warfare in the Middle East.” 

Bernie Sanders: “America”

Type: Inspirational

Who paid for it? Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa and New Hampshire. Just a day after it debuted on YouTube, it had hit well over 250,000 views.  

Impact: Almost entirely devoid of substance, all glossy images and melodic soundtrack, this ad is clearly intended to galvanize Sanders supporters. It’s too enjoyable to fail on that score—especially for those baby boomers who’ll remember how they were all socialists back when Simon & Garfunkel released “America,” the song that propels this ad, in 1968. 

Bernie Sanders: “Patti and George”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa. 

Impact: Sanders makes a strong case to the environmentalist crowd in Iowa with this ad featuring a farming couple, who laud the senator for opposing the Bakken Pipeline, which would pump crude oil across Iowa. 

Marco Rubio: “Disqualified”

Type: Attack

Who paid for it? Rubio campaign 

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

Impact: Rubio hits Hillary Clinton for her email server fiasco. His critiques are unoriginal—Benghazi, ISIS, handling classified intelligence—but they’re sure to fire up the Republican base. 

Marco Rubio: “Happening”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Rubio campaign

Reach: Airing on cable and broadcast stations in Iowa. 

Impact: Rubio pleads with viewers not to listen to the attacks Jeb Bush and his allies are launching against the Florida senator. “Bush is desperate and spending millions on false attacks,” Rubio says. 

Marco Rubio: “Support”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Rubio campaign

Reach: The ad is airing on cable and broadcast stations in Iowa. 

Impact: In this ad, Kelly Terry-Willis talks about her brother, Brian Terry, whose killing in Arizona in 2010, exposed the “Fast and Furious” operation. While powerful, the spot fails to say what Rubio would specifically do that sets him apart from the other contenders promising to secure the border. 

Ben Carson: “America is Safe in Ben Carson’s Hands”

Type: Biographical

Who paid for it? Carson campaign 

Reach: Aired in Iowa. 

Impact: Bleeding votes in Iowa, Ben Carson clearly needs a new message. But this ad sticks to the old routine, telling voters about the compassionate pediatric surgeon whose “courage, inner strength, and belief in God allows him to look death in the eyes and blink.” 

Marco Rubio: “Good Deal”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? Rubio campaign

Reach: The ad aired in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

Impact: Except for the Bobblehead dolls that make a brief appearance, this ad falls back on overused talking points. It features Rick Harrison, a figure on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars, assuring the viewer that Marco Rubio is the “real deal” who will “stand up to runaway government and fight Washington special interests.” 

Ted Cruz: “Have Your Back”

Type: Issue 

Who paid for it? Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Iowa. 

Impact: Ted Cruz is making a shrewd move by running against the Democratic administration, rather than his fellow Republicans. In this ad, he tears into President Obama for letting ten American sailors be humiliated at the hands of Iran when they were captured this month. 

Chris Christie: “Nothing More Important”

Type: Issue

Who paid for it? America Leads, the PAC supporting Christie

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire—the thirteenth ad America Leads has run in the state.

Impact: This ad follows the same standard recipe for campaign ads that call for strong executive leadership to face the looming threat of ISIS: the references to Paris and San Bernardino, the jabs at Clinton and Obama, and the scary quote: “ISIS has said all they want is what they call the sweet taste of American blood.” 

American Crossroads: “Hillary’s Bull Market”

Type: Attack

Who paid for it? American Crossroads, the Republican super PAC founded by Karl Rove

Reach: Aired as part of a $50,000 digital ad buy in Iowa. 

Impact: This spot sticks to the same old script for attacking Clinton for accepting donations from Wall Street. But there is a touch of irony about it: A super PAC funded by business magnates like Sheldon Adelson and companies like BP is hammering a candidate for taking “Wall Street cash.” 

Marco Rubio: “Fear and Quoting”

Type: Biographical

Who paid for it? Conservative Solutions, the super PAC aligned with Marco Rubio

Reach: Conservative Solutions announced this ad Tuesday along with two others. All three will air in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

Impact: Apparently the Rubio campaign cannot repeat the central talking point it’s been using in ads for weeks. “Rubio is the Republican Democrats fear most,” this spot reminds us.  

Hillary Clinton: “Why”

Type: Biographical

Who paid for it? Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC working for Clinton

Reach: Priorities USA Action funded this ad with a six-figure digital ad buy in Iowa this week. 

Impact: This ad hits back at American Crossroads, the Republican super PAC that made a digital ad buy this week attacking Clinton. “Why are Karl Rove and his Republican super PAC coming to Iowa to attack Hillary Clinton?” the narrator asks. “Because they know Hillary is the only one strong enough to stop Wall Street abuses and make the wealthy pay their fair share.” 

Rand Paul: “Flame”

Type: Whimsical

Who paid for it? Purple PAC, an outside group supporting Rand Paul

Impact: With the camera trained on a single flickering flame for almost 30 seconds, this spot is pretty darn weird. “Liberty is warm, powerful, and comforting,” the narrator says. “Stand with Rand and keep the flame of liberty glowing bright.”