How Donald Trump Destroyed the Political Campaign Ad

Even though he has spent much less than his rivals on advertising, the Republican candidate is still leading the pack. Is the campaign ad now obsolete?

12.09.15 7:08 PM ET

Less than two months before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the 2016 race has already shattered any number of political axioms.

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump—currently dominating the contest, as well as the cable and broadcast networks, with his ruthless proposal to ban all non-American Muslims from entering the United States—is the candidate doing the lion’s share of the breakage.      

The most conspicuous truism that Trump has smashed to bits is that whoever outspends his competitors on media consultants for brilliantly persuasive television commercials, and the savvy purchase of advertising time, also possesses an intimidating edge.

Yet the wildly divergent political fortunes of Trump and Jeb Bush—the two best-known brand names in the Republican field—have belied that long-cherished belief and threatened bedrock assumptions that underpin the lucrative campaign ad-making business.

“Even effective advertising is only going to matter at the margins,” said campaign media expert Kenneth M. Goldstein, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “That said, this has been a campaign so far that has not been driven by paid media—either in terms of polling or in terms of driving the media conversation. It is simply not about the ads.”

While clever or provocative campaign commercials have routinely influenced media coverage in the early stages of message-cluttered presidential contests, Trump has managed to explode that tradition.

“His messages are easily digestible and, say what you want about them, they’re not difficult to understand,” Goldstein said. “His ability to shine through the noise is strong. You don’t have a lot of factors present where advertising is likely to matter.”

Republican ad-maker Rick Wilson, on the other hand, argued that “the death of media consulting has been wildly exaggerated.”

Wilson, a Daily Beast contributor, defended the vitality of his profession in an email: “Television and digital video are a form that people understand; the 30- and 60-second spot are how most Americans come to understand products, brands, candidates, and issues.”

He added: “Television has always been a vector to build name identification and policy identification. Trump is a unicorn in this respect; as tabloid fodder for over 20 years, as a reality TV star, and as a creature of the media culture, he’s a political outlier. Unless Kanye runs in 2020, it’s unlikely we’ll see another like him.”

The question of whether Trump is a unicorn, however, is cold comfort for famed Republican media strategist Mike Murphy, who is running the pro-Bush super PAC, Right to Rise.

Murphy, who didn’t comment to The Daily Beast, has already blown $31.7 million of the nearly $33 million spent on pro-Bush television and radio ads (with the Jeb! campaign proper investing $800,000) in order to achieve a shockingly anemic fifth place in the race, with a 3.8 percent national polling average.

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Trump, on the other hand, has spent a mere $216,000 on paid campaign commercials (just on radio ads, and less than 1 percent of Team Bush’s outlay), but has managed to increase his first-place lead to an average of 29.3 percent in national polls—14 points ahead of his nearest rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

In Iowa and New Hampshire statewide polls, the story is much the same.

In the nation’s first-caucus state, which votes on Feb. 1, Trump and Cruz are neck-and-neck in the lead, with Cruz actually beating the reality show/real estate mogul in the respected Monmouth Poll. Cruz, incidentally, has been nearly as parsimonious as Trump, spending only $850,000 to challenge the national frontrunner.  

In the first-primary state, which votes on Feb. 9, Trump is killing it at 28 percent, 16 points ahead of his closest rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with Cruz running in third place. The hard-right Cruz’s in-your-face religiosity and heated rhetoric apparently are not as good a cultural fit with starchy New Englanders as they are with evangelical Iowans.

And Team Rubio’s hearty advertising expenditure of $13 million, which is apparently aiding his ascension as a candidate of the GOP establishment, might offer a reassuring counterexample to the traumatized political consultant class.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato attributed the robust rise of the skinflint Trump and drain-circling path of the spendthrift Bush less to a general political trend than to the candidates’ particular identities in the marketplace.

“It’s the old story of the new dog food,” Sabato said about the former Florida governor, the son and brother of ex-presidents and a much-lauded conservative who had raised more than $100 million for the race.

Bush was once considered a prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

“The new dog food had the most beautiful label ever, the very best advertising, and dog owners were just pulling it off the shelves. They couldn’t keep it stocked,” Sabato said. “There was just one problem. The dogs wouldn’t eat it. That is Jeb Bush in a nutshell.”

Sabato added that Bush’s campaign commercials “have been perfectly presentable. His campaign for the most part has been well organized. But there’s just one problem. The Republican electorate doesn’t want Jeb Bush, and there’s nothing he can do to change that. He is at war with the spirit of the age.”

This is true, Sabato said, even though Bush has been receiving a disproportionately high level of free media attention given his poor performance in the polls: He was the featured guest on Stephen Colbert’s Sept. 8 debut as CBS’s late-night host; he regularly appears on the Fox News Channel, by far the most-watched cable outlet among the Republican primary voters.

“I just think the product stinks, and there’s no amount of lipstick you can put on it,” said a presidentially unaligned Republican ad-maker who spoke on condition of not being identified, so as not to antagonize the Bush campaign.

“The ‘Jeb Can Fix It’ message is wrong. It is all technocratic, and it’s not ideological or revolutionary.”

This media consultant added that “poll after poll shows that Republican primary voters tend to believe that the Republican establishment in Washington [with which they associate the Bush family] has lied to them over and over again. They said they were going to repeal Obamacare and do all these other things and they never get it done.”

By contrast, “a large segment of Trump’s Republican primary supporters are white non-college voters, and if you’re white and non-college, you’ve got a lot of things to be upset about,” the consultant continued. “You make too much money to qualify for Obamacare subsidies but not enough to be considered middle class.  You think immigration reform is going to help somebody else get a job, and you don’t see the benefit of trade deals.

“You think that the Washington establishment is totally corrupt and only works to get itself re-elected and does not do anything for you. At that point, a guy like Trump becomes incredibly attractive and a guy like Jeb becomes everything that you want to stop.”

Conservative operative David Keating, president of Center for Competitive Politics and widely credited as the inventor of the super PAC, said Trump is further advantaged by his free media mastery because—despite standard Republican rhetoric to the contrary—voters still find news reports more credible than paid ads.

“Actual news coverage has more value, minute by minute, than an ad,” Keating said. “How much higher, I don’t think we know. It would be an interesting research project.”

Keating said that beyond traditional television, radio and print and online information sources, social media is also a powerful factor.

Trump, of course, is a Twitter virtuoso—far more skilled than his rivals at grabbing attention with his tweets, with the other candidates forced to react and respond—dancing to Trump’s tune, as it were.

After the loose-tongued billionaire’s announcement Monday of his non-citizen Muslim ban, Jeb Bush was reduced to tweeting: “Donald Trump is unhinged. His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious”—just the sort of establishment critique that in the past has solidified Trump’s political base.

“As they say,” Keating noted, “money can’t buy you love.”