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Ad Wars 2016: The Search for the Elusive Silver Bullet

With Super Tuesday looming, candidates like Marco Rubio are spending millions on the long-shot hope of producing one game-changing ad. Plus: This week’s campaign ad round-up.

The History Channel

Most campaign commercials feature grainy newsreels, press clippings, and a candidate speaking forcefully from a podium or directly into the camera. But last week, before Democrats in the state gathered to caucus, Nevadans saw something different: A commercial titled “Brave,” in which Hillary Clinton speaks softly and emotionally to a little girl who is crying about the prospect of her undocumented parents being deported. On Sunday, Clinton campaign advisers told Politico that “Brave” was the game-changer that had turned the tide for their candidate in the final days before the Nevada Caucus, where she’d been in danger of losing the crucial Latino vote to Bernie Sanders. They had blanketed the Nevada airwaves with the ad in the three days leading up to the caucuses and pushed it out online, propelling Clinton from a virtual tie earlier in the week to a comfortable win on Saturday night.

Ads like “Brave,” which the Clinton campaign is now airing in Colorado prior to its Super Tuesday caucus, are the white whales of American politics. Political strategists can go their whole careers without creating an ad that singlehandedly changes the course of an election. “The silver bullet ad: Every candidate believes in it, and every political consultant cringes when they hear it,” says Jim Duffy, a media strategist at the prominent Democratic consulting firm Putnam Partners. 

In his 32 years making campaign ads for candidates from Blanche Lincoln and Roy Barnes, Duffy has worked on just one, nearly three decades ago: a commercial in the 1987 Louisiana gubernatorial race that propelled dark horse Buddy Roemer from fifth to victory in a single month. “We needed a hot message, but a cool candidate,” Duffy told me. He eventually produced a commercial called “Angry.” It was a harsh condemnation of politics as usual in Louisiana. But with his crisp suit and a light blue background, Roemer still managed to look calm and collected. The contrast was powerful. Today, railing against the political process is a common political tactic. But in the ‘80s, “it was radical,” Duffy said. “I have never seen a spot move people like that one did.” Money started pouring in and Roemer went from fifth place to second in two weeks, ultimately winning the election.

Attack ads are sometimes silver bullets, too. Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was already sinking in the polls when the George H.W. Bush campaign released “Tank Ride” in October 1988. But the indelible footage of the slight Massachusetts governor cruising along in a 68-ton M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank wearing an enormous helmet cemented the idea that Dukakis was well, a little bit of a wimp. “He looked ridiculous,” says David Schwartz, a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. “That became how people saw him.”

Anecdotes like these explain why presidential candidates are still buying up thousands of ad slots before Super Tuesday—even when all the signs suggest that television has had little or no effect on the polls this election cycle, with the possible exception of Clinton’s Nevada campaign. Candidates want to believe that there’s a silver-bullet ad out there that can singlehandedly turn things in their favor, and they’ll spend millions searching for one—largely in vain, as most of this year’s candidates can attest.

Several factors have to align to make a regular old ad a silver bullet. The timing has to be perfect. The national news media has to pick up on the ad to give it extra oomph. And the commercial itself has to be bold. “You have to have the guts to do something different,” says Fred Davis, a Republican consultant who has crafted ads for candidates from John McCain to Carly Fiorina to John Kasich. “That’s what many people don’t have.”

The two Republican candidates who have pinned their presidential hopes on finding silver bullets in 2016 have both faced this problem. Through the South Carolina primary, when Jeb Bush finally abandoned his flagging campaign, the strategists at the Bush-affiliated Right To Rise super PAC—despite every indication that the $84 million they were spending on ads had had no effect whatsoever—still believed that they would eventually release a commercial that would click, sending Bush rocketing back to the front of the Republican pack. It never happened, and the campaign ultimately wasted more than $130 million waiting for one of its ads to take off.

In the remaining field, no candidate is relying more heavily on TV ads than Marco Rubio, whose PAC is spending almost $1.5 million on television ads in the Super Tuesday states—far more than any other candidate in the Republican field. But none of the commercials the Florida senator has released shows the kind of originality needed for a silver-bullet breakout. Rubio’s most recent ad, “Revolution,” is a pefect example: It features the candidate delivering a speech in South Carolina in which he declares, “the children of the Reagan revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership.” But with everyone referencing Reagan in the Republican primary, the ad does nothing to set Rubio apart from the other candidates still in the race. The script is predictable, and the photos of closed-down gas stations and Iranian hostages make a weak attempt to summon up some portentous lesson from history. The Florida senator may very well wind up wasting many millions on the slim chance of a silver bullet—just like the former Florida governor before him.

With new TV ads flooding the airwaves leading up to Super Tuesday, 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


Marco Rubio: “Revolution” 

Type: Inspirational ad

Who Paid for It? The Rubio campaign

ReachAired in “key markets in the March 1 primary states”

Impact: Marco Rubio continues the long tradition of Republicans’ veneration of Ronald Reagan in this ad, which tries to frame him as a younger, sexier Reagan. But as I wrote last week, everyone in the GOP field is trying to make this comparison—and so long as Rubio hews to the dominant negative tenor of this race, he’ll never be able to recapture the hopeful uplift that Reagan used so successfully three decades ago. 

John Kasich: “Crown” 

Type: Biographical ad 

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich

ReachAired in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Michigan as part of a six-figure ad buy

Impact: By showing Marco Rubio gilding backward and fading from the screen, this ad subtly underscores the idea that the Florida senator is somehow insubstantial. It could be an effective message: The best attack ads, after all, are supposed to cement people’s preexisting doubts about a candidate—and Rubio has long been accused of being nothing more than a pretty face. 

This week’s other new ads from New Day for America: “Cratered,” “Quiet” 

Hillary Clinton: “This City Means Something” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

ReachAired in Michigan

Impact: This ad is particularly effective because it uses average citizens from Flint telling viewers that Hillary Clinton stood up for them during the city’s water crisis. There’s no better way to argue that she’s championing the downtrodden and forgotten people in the rest of the country. 

Hillary Clinton: “The Letter” 

Type: Endorsement ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: This ad starts out with a neat spin on traditional endorsement commercials—a father writing an open letter to his young daughters about why he supports Hillary Clinton. It’s a charming idea, but in the end, the ad just devolves into her standard talking points: that she’ll fight for equal pay, affordable college, and “an America where all our sons and daughters have a chance to reach their God-given potential”—a line drawn almost word-for-word from Clinton’s stump speeches. 

Hillary Clinton: “Johnson Controls” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

ReachAired in Minnesota

Impact: This ad is notable for the sharp language Clinton uses to condemn the Wisconsin energy company Johnson Controls, calling its move to Ireland “an outrage.” She may be attempting to insulate herself from criticism that she’s friendly to big business—which she particularly needs to do in Minnesota, a predominantly white state that Bernie Sanders is gunning for on Super Tuesday. 

Hillary Clinton: “Stand” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired nationally on cable

Impact: Morgan Freeman’s deep-voiced narration, overlaid on some of Clinton’s own speeches, gives this ad a rhythmic quality that makes it more inspirational than her usual commercials. 

This week’s other new ads from the Clinton campaign: Hands Down,” “All the Good” 

Club for Growth: “Politician” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? Club for Growth Action, a conservative PAC that advocates for lowering taxes 

ReachAired in Oklahoma and Arkansas as part of a $1 million ad buy

Impact: Everyone’s been clamoring for stronger attacks on Donald Trump, but this one is wholly unremarkable. It recycles the usual points thrown at the GOP front-runner: that in the past he supported “higher taxes, national health care, and the Wall Street bailout,” and said he identified “more as a Democrat.” Still, it could conceivably have an impact in Oklahoma and Arkansas, Super Tuesday states that haven’t been bombarded by too much political spending yet, giving this ad some novelty. 

Marco Rubio: “Serious” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? Conservative Solutions PAC, the outside group backing Marco Rubio

Reach: Aired in Virginia

Impact: Marco Rubio’s message here is all too clear: Settle for me, because no one else is electable. That argument may be Rubio’s strongest selling point at the moment. But the overall message could use some finessing: The narrator concludes with the line “Marco Rubio, the Republican who can beat Hillary and inspire a new generation.” Read quickly, it sounds like a disclaimer at the end of advertisements for heartburn medication or birth control. 

Bernie Sanders: “Keith Ellison on Why He Endorses Bernie Sanders” 

Type: Endorsement ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

ReachAired in Minnesota

Impact: Bernie Sanders has been airing several endorsement commercials like this one in recent weeks, likely hoping that support from elected officials will make him look like a more plausible choice for the nomination. Still, while this one features Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison—a favorite among Minnesota progressives—it’s pretty standard fare, sticking to familiar talking points like, “Bernie Sanders is going to help regular, working people.”  

Ted Cruz: “Stopwatch” 

Type: Biographical ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina 

Impact: The most powerful part of this ad comes at the end, when Rush Limbaugh says, “There is no other choice for you in this campaign than Ted Cruz. This is the closest in our lifetimes we have ever been to Ronald Reagan.” That message might have played well with South Carolina conservatives in the lead-up to last Saturday’s primary, but it gets buried beneath a lot of standard talking points about Cruz taking on Washington and trying to cut the deficit. 

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

Keep the Promise I: “Experience NV,” “Experience SC” 

Stand for Truth: “Sweet Deal” 

Conservative Solutions PAC: “Serious” 

The Kasich campaign: “Progress”