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Ad Wars 2016: Morning in America 2.0

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio try to update the classic Reagan commercial—and fail spectacularly. Plus: This week’s campaign ad round-up.

Ted Cruz / YouTube

When Ronald Reagan was preparing to run for reelection in 1984, the White House assembled a handful of advertising execs from Madison Avenue. First Lady Nancy Reagan had disliked the “hard sells” the campaign had used four years earlier, and suggested they come up with something more lighthearted this time around. What they produced still remains arguably the most successful campaign spot since the advent of television. Morning in America” powerfully depicted a bold, resurgent country that had put sluggish economic growth and global embarrassments behind it—thanks, of course, to President Reagan. 

Three decades later, the Republican presidential candidates are still trying to recapture the magic. Both the Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz campaigns have launched “Morning in America” knockoffs in the last month, with the Florida senator making headlines this week when Buzzfeed discovered stock footage from the Vancouver skyline in the ad’s first panoramic shot. But that geographic goof-up is not why Rubio’s ad fails so miserably. It falls flat for the same reason that Cruz’s stab at “Morning in America” does: Even while aiming to recapture the uplift of the Reagan spot, these new versions slip into the dominant Republican mood in 2016—one that is far more dark night than sunny morning.

The original was brilliant in its simplicity. The historical moment had something to do with that: “Morning in America” debuted four years into a Republican presidency, when Reagan could claim credit for an improving economy. There’s no room for such expressions of confidence on the GOP side this year, particularly with the demonized Barack Obama occupying the White House. True, GDP is growing again, and unemployment has reached its lowest level in more than seven years—but if anyone gets credit for that, it’s Obama. And it would be heresy for a GOP candidate to admit that anything in America is on an upward swing today.  

The Cruz campaign has rejiggered “Morning in America” to account for this altered political landscape. The resulting commercial, titled “Best to Come,” features similar idyllic images of American life—a farmer driving a tractor, a pitcher on a baseball diamond, a soldier heading off to war. “The best is still to come,” the narrator says. But at the same time, the ad veers sharply away from uplift, lamenting that under Obama, “America is beginning to fade.” Cruz’s refurbished “Morning in America” loses its power by bombarding voters with contradictory messages: concern about America and optimism for its future.

Morning Again,” the ad released by Rubio this week, is even more convoluted. It sticks doggedly to the original script, only changing a few words—but those alterations generate some laughably awkward lines. The narrator of the original “Morning in America” memorably intoned that “this afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future.”

In the Rubio remake, the line comes out like this: “This afternoon, almost 6,000 men and women will be married, and with growing threats and growing government, they’ll look forward with worry to the future.” (Are we talking about a bright future for America here, or a mass wedding a la Sun Myung Moon?) “Morning Again” abandons nearly all the hopefulness that imbued the original for doomsday prophesies like “our country is more vulnerable, divided, and diminished than ever before.” Meanwhile, happy American scenes of white picket fences, newspaper boys, and commuters on their way to work unfold on screen. The contrast is far more jarring than stirring.  

These botched efforts to copy “Morning in America” speak volumes about the tone and tenor of this year’s Republican primary. With Obama still in the White House, it can’t be morning yet. The world according to the Republican field—and most Republican voters—is a grim and dangerous place. And the two candidates best positioned to challenge Donald Trump for the GOP nomination feel compelled to campaign on gloom and doom—no matter how much they may want to embrace the buoyant optimism that the patron saint of Republicanism used to such great effect in the ‘80s. 


With new TV ads flooding the airwaves in the final days before the South Carolina primaries and Nevada caucuses, we analyzed the ten most notable spots from this week and listed the rest below. You can see every presidential spot that’s aired in this campaign cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Bernie Sanders: “It’s Not Over” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

ReachAired in South Carolina

Impact: Erica Garner is a moving and charismatic advocate for Bernie Sanders in this ad. Her story of losing her father, Eric Garner, to police brutality translates well to the screen. Beautifully shot, the ad also feels less staged than most. It runs for two minutes, much longer than the usual 30- or 60-second campaign commercial, which may also make it more memorable. 

Bernie Sanders: “Wheels of Inevitability” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: With its soaring music and quotes from Martin Luther King, this ad succeeds in its main purpose: painting Bernie Sanders as a transformational leader in the civil rights movement. The message is not quite as powerful as hearing Erica Garner talk about her father in “It’s Not Over,” but it can still give you goosebumps. 

This week’s other new ads from the Sanders campaign: Lucy Flores” 

Hillary Clinton: “Brave”

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Nevada, online and on television 

Impact: You can see the contrast here between Hillary Clinton’s ads and Bernie Sanders’s. His tend to use soaring music and lofty speeches to make his points about racial justice and immigration. Meanwhile, this characteristic Clinton spot shows the candidate talking softly to a young girl about her parents being deported. The Clinton campaign is trying to show her more human side, perhaps hoping to replicate the teary moment that helped her win the 2008 New Hampshire primary. But while Clinton is clearly emotional in the ad, the setting still makes it feel overly staged, complete with applause in the background and nodding supporters. 

This week’s other new ad from the Clinton campaign: New World,” “Standing”  

Marco Rubio: “Future” 

Type: Endorsement

Who Paid for It? The Rubio campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: The format and message of this ad are wholly unexceptional—the script reads like any number of Marco Rubio ads that assert he’s the future. But the person the ad features, endorsing Rubio, is important. Simply by looking young and vibrant, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley helps align Rubio with the next generation of young, conservative leaders. 

This week’s other new ads from the Rubio campaign: Fear,” “Family” 

Ted Cruz: “Currency” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: Even amidst the down-and-dirty Republican primary underway in South Carolina, this Ted Cruz attack ad against Donald Trump levels some charges that hit below the belt. By splicing together news footage about Planned Parenthood “harvesting the organs of aborted fetuses for money” with Trump saying Planned Parenthood “serves a good function,” the ad implies that the media mogul supports the practice. Trump has never done so—and he’s suing Cruz for defamation

Ted Cruz: “Supreme Trust” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: You have to give Ted Cruz credit for finding a new way to slip Donald Trump’s October 1999 interview on Meet the Press into yet another ad. At least four other campaign spots from the Cruz campaign and other outside groups have used exactly the same clip of Trump telling Tim Russert, “I am pro-choice in every respect.” But the idea that Trump would appoint a pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court to replace the late Antonin Scalia feels like a bit of a stretch, particularly since Trump says he no longer supports abortion rights, except in cases of rape and incest

Ted Cruz: “Sales Pitch” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: The fact that Marco Rubio championed a path to citizenship is a pretty tired line of attack by now, but the way Ted Cruz’s campaign presents it in this ad is actually quite original. The commercial splices together clips from Rubio and President Obama, making the Florida senator sound like he’s mimicking the president almost word-for-word. The montage is a subtler way to argue that Rubio is in Obama’s pocket than the rhetoric Cruz usually employs. 

This week’s other new ads from the Cruz campaign: Chance,” “Marco Can’t Hide the Facts” 

Donald Trump: “Illegal Immigration” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina and Nevada 

Impact: This ad recounts how an undocumented immigrant “gunned down” a young man named Jamiel Shaw outside his Los Angeles home. A spot like this would normally be denounced for exploiting racial biases against Latino immigrants, but this one has gotten very little blowback, suggesting that the press has simply come to expect race-baiting from Trump. 

Jeb Bush: “Iceberg”  

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush

ReachAired nationally on Fox News and in South Carolina, as part of a nearly $12 million ad buy in the state on TV, radio, and the Internet. 

Impact: The ad gurus at Right to Rise have a penchant for dropping exceedingly random metaphors into their campaign commercials: First weathervanes, then disembodied dancing boots, and now a dripping ice sculpture of Donald Trump, which shows up in the ad with no explanation of why his business failures mean he should be pictured as an ice sculpture. 

This week’s other new ads from Right to Rise: Suck Ups,” “Same Resume” 

John Kasich: “Healing” 

Type: Biographical ad 

Who Paid for It? The Kasich campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: John Kasich never mentioned his religiosity in his New Hampshire ads, but now that he’s campaigning in Bible Belt South Carolina, he’s suddenly channeling an evangelical preacher with lines like, “I discovered my purpose by discovering the Lord.” 

This week’s other new ads from the Kasich campaign: 100 Days” 

At the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive, you can view this week’s other ads: 

Our Principles PAC: “Questions 3” 

New Day for America: “Newt” 

Conservative Solutions PAC: “Different”