“Voters want someone to believe in and someone who is electable,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic consultant who advised Washington Gov. Jay Inslee during his presidential campaign, which ended last year. “Each candidate, in their own way, is trying to strike that balance.”
On Friday morning, Warren popped her final Iowa TV ads, featuring a Trump-turned-Warren supporter testifying that a woman can win in 2020. A second ad pitched the Massachusetts senator as the Democratic Party’s unity candidate, splicing together former Hillary Clinton, Sanders and Trump backers backing to Warren this year.
Only Sanders has spent more money than Warren to spread his message on TV over the past two weeks of the Iowa race, according to data from Advertising Analytics. But she is playing catch-up in the ad wars, having gotten a later start than her main Democratic rivals.
Investor Tom Steyer leads the way with $15 million dropped on ads in Iowa, according to Advertising Analytics, though his poll numbers lag in the low single-digits. Close behind, Sanders and Buttigieg both aired more than $10 million of TV ads in the state, followed by Andrew Yang (also in single-digits in the polls) with just over $6 million spent. Warren, who didn’t start airing TV ads until late October, comes in fifth in spending, dropping $6 million.
Biden would be badly outspent on TV, if it weren’t for a super PAC providing air cover. Unite the Country put $4.7 million behind a TV ad Biden’s campaign, while the Biden campaign spent $4.1 million. And Klobuchar, who’s lagged behind the top four Democratic contenders in fundraising and in polling, has spent $3.8 million on TV.
For most of the top candidates, those final pitches still hew to their central themes.
Biden’s final ads hone in on the general election match-up against a “dangerous” Trump, flashing the former vice president’s head-to-head poll numbers that show him eating Trump in battleground states. The Biden ads urge voters to “nominate the Democrat that Trump fears the most.”
“This is no time to take a risk. We need our strongest candidate,” says the ad’s narrator, a line that Buttigieg has started to attack on the campaign trail.
The super PAC boosting Biden makes a similar case, but in darker tone. It includes a Biden voiceover, warning, “just how dangerous this president is to our national security, to our leadership around the world and to the lives of the brave women and men serving in uniform.”
“We need someone in the Oval Office who understands the gravity and the consequences of their decisions,” Biden says in the ad, flashing images of Biden in the White House and standing with world leaders. “We have to choose the America we want to be.”
Sanders caps off one of his final ads with a call to action to “transform the country” — a different way of saying “revolution,” the theme he’s hammered home over the last four years.
“Bernie is the only one asking people to join something bigger than himself,” said Dan Sena, a Democratic consultant who has advised Sen. Michael Bennet’s presidential campaign. “Everyone else’s is about them, and where that candidate is going to take you. That still sets up the narrative around aspiration and where you’re going, but it’s very important to note how different that is from what Bernie is doing.”
Another final-week ad from Sanders, who has surged in Iowa, contests Trump on Social Security, pledging to expand the program. But he has also drawn attacks from outside groups. A super PAC working against Sanders released an ad raising concerns about the 78-year-old senator’s ideology and his recent heart attack, while the conservative Club for Growth also noted his age in an ad.
Buttigieg takes a more upbeat tack, asking Iowans to “turn the page on a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking,” a theme the 38-year-old regularly turned to as a means of contrasting himself with his top competitors, all of whom are senior citizens and served on Capitol Hill.”
Buttigieg was one of the first candidates to go up with hefty TV buy, which helped boost his polling numbers in the state during the fall. And on Friday, Buttigieg released his final digital ads, featuring selfie testimonials from supporters.
Looming over the TV spending in Iowa is the spending Michael Bloomberg is doing everywhere else. The former New York City mayor has already spent an unprecedented quarter-billion dollars on adsthroughout the country, seeing a steady uptick in his national polling numbers along the way.
“There’s no question that those TV and digital ads can move numbers,” said John Lapp, a Democratic consultant who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “But winning in Iowa means there has to be an overall narrative, worked out in retail politics and in free media. You have to do all of that on top of the ads.”
Voters who haven’t locked in their choice — 45 percent of the Democratic electorate, according to the most recent CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll — may catch a glance of those final ads as they head out the door “literally the morning of the caucus, and it could determine how they align,” Leopold said. “Because undecided voters make their decisions really late, campaigns absolutely have to communicate competitively at the very end here.”
That’s mirrored in the spending: Nearly 40 percent of all political ad buys in Iowa were made over the past five weeks.
“Political advertising is just like product advertising. It has to be persuasive in order to be relevant,” said Jeff White, an Iowa-based marketing consultant.
That may be why Warren, who has dipped in Iowa polling since last fall, shifted her final messaging to pure electability pitch, contrasting her biography with Trump’s not only in TV ads but in her stump speeches and in answers to Iowa voters’ questions.
“He grew up in a mansion in New York City, she grew up here in Oklahoma,” the ad says, narrated by Roxane Gay, the author and activist who endorsed Warren.
Some Democratic operatives questioned whether she waited too long to go up with a TV buy in Iowa. “There’s a strong grassroots element to Warren’s campaign, but looking back, she would’ve benefited from doing more paid communications,” Lapp said.
Alex Thompson contributed reporting.