DES MOINES — Political pitches will interrupt Wheel of Fortune, Sunday Night Football and the evening news for months. But in the final week before the first-in-the-nation caucuses, advertising levels will reach a fever pitch.
For example, an average of 62 political ads per day are already scheduled to bombard KCCI viewers in the eight days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, a Des Moines Register analysis shows. And only three candidates in the current field of 20 Democrats and Republicans — Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio andJeb Bush — have begun buying.
Spending by other candidates as voting nears and by a profusion of outside groups will intensify the onslaught.
“In some of these (swing) states, there’s literally going to be no available advertising space left on television,” said Kip Cassino, executive vice president at market research company Borrell Associates. “The local TV stations are literally going to have to turn down political ad spending.”
What happens then? Cassino said Iowans and other early-state voters should expect to see political ads flood over into cable, onto smartphones and possibly even into movie theaters.
“Think about that over your popcorn,” Cassino said.
The eye-glazing totals so far: More than 35,000 commercials accounting for $22.5 million in spending have aired or been purchased to air on Iowa TV stations through Feb. 2, the day after the caucuses. That’s based on Federal Communications Commission records filed through Sept. 30.
The analysis doesn’t count all the ads Iowans will see on cable stations or satellite networks.
Outside groups buy more than candidates
The $22.5 million represents a down payment on what’s expected to be unprecedented TV ad spending this cycle.
An August report by Borrell projects that each presidential candidate’s campaign will spend an average of $36 million on advertising in 2015 alone, a time frame when ads will air almost exclusively in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
That $36 million includes support from national party committees, but excludes spending from super PACs, which are outside organizations that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates but legally must operate independently from them. Experts say these super political action committees will do the majority of advertising throughout the 2016 campaign — more than the candidates themselves.
So far in Iowa, super PACs account for about $14 million worth of political ads, or two-thirds of what has already been purchased. Most active among them are the groups that support Republicans Bush, the former Florida governor ($4.5 million); Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (nearly $3 million); and Rubio, a Florida U.S. senator ($2.1 million).
In contrast, Clinton’s campaign has shouldered the entire advertising tab for the Democratic former secretary of state. No ads have been bought on her behalf by a supportive super PAC. Her campaign is the largest single buyer in the state, purchasing more than 11,000 ads totaling about $4.5 million.
But Rubio leads the way in total spending on his behalf, at $5.5 million. His campaign has booked $3.4 million worth of air time, and two outside spending groups have pitched in the rest.
Cutting through the clutter will be harder later
With a crowded field of candidates — and the crowded airwaves that will follow — Democratic strategist Brad Anderson said it’s a good idea for candidates who can afford it to get on the air sooner rather than later.
“I do think Secretary Clinton does have the resources, and it does make a lot of strategic sense to get her message out when the airwaves are pretty open right now,” he said.
Once the airwaves become more saturated with political ads, he said, it will be harder for candidates to stand out.
Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for strategic initiatives for Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said so far she’s seeing more candidates doing just that.
She recently performed an analysis showing that the number of political ads already airing in early voting states is seven times greater than at this point in 2011. Only Republicans were buying ads that cycle as they battled for the chance to take on an incumbent Democratic president.
However, Wilner also questioned whether the increase this cycle is having a measurable effect.
Some of the highest-polling candidates “not only in (Iowa) but also in New Hampshire, are not doing any television advertising at all,” she said.
Republicans Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination, are all polling well and have the money to advertise. But not one has aired a single TV spot on Iowa stations or booked any spots ahead of the caucuses.
An aide for Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, declined to comment on strategy. Trump, the real estate and entertainment mogul, has said publicly that he’s been able to generate enough buzz on his own without advertising.
An aide for Sanders, an independent U.S. senator from Vermont, similarly said his campaign has not needed TV ads so far, but may air some later.
“The kind of energy and the kind of results we’re getting is not coming from TV ads,” said Lilia Chacon, Sanders’ Iowa press secretary. “The only thing I’ve heard Bernie say is that at some point we will be torturing people with political ads, just like everybody else.”
Tricky landscape for TV stations, candidates
The advertising torrent will cause headaches not just for viewers, but also for candidates trying to buy space and for the television stations trying to make room on the airwaves.
Candidates who wait too long could risk losing out on the chance to make a splash with airtime, Anderson said. Although FCC regulations ensure a candidate seeking airtime can get some, it doesn’t ensure they will get the number of spots they want or the programs.
“We certainly saw that in 2014 with the obscene amount of money spent on television,” Anderson said of Iowa’s 2014 congressional elections. “By the end, there was no advertising space left for anyone who hadn’t pre-purchased television ads to get on air.”
Because of the FCC’s requirements and the big combined field, stations will have to be extra careful in managing their inventory to ensure they can open up time for anyone who wants it.
Already, Rubio’s campaign has bought more than $750,000 in ads to air across the state the week before the caucuses. That means the TV stations that sold him those spots have to ensure they can also provide similar airtime to the 14 other Republicans now in the race, should they request it.
If a station is running out of space, it could go back to Rubio and tell him it can’t give him everything he purchased, said David Oxenford, a broadcast attorney with Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP in Washington, D.C. It could also eliminate ads sold to local businesses and other advertisers.
Anderson acknowledged that so much political advertising, especially when it turns negative, can cause viewers to tune out, or worse, decide not to vote. But he also acknowledged that television advertising is too valuable a tool for campaigns to forgo altogether.
“The truth is there are a lot of different ways to get your message across, but at the end of the day, the two most effective ways … are door knocking and television ads,” he said. “You only have a limited amount of doors you can knock on, but TV has a much further reach. My personal advice is to try to do both. But for candidates that don’t have the resources to do both, they probably have a further reach doing TV. It’s still an incredibly important way for any candidate to get their message across.”
About this report
This exclusive report was prepared by examining political advertising records that major television stations serving the Iowa broadcast market filed with the Federal Communications Commission through Sept. 30.
The analysis included each ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox network affiliate. Ads aired on cable stations or satellite networks such as Dish and DirecTV were not included.
The contracts detail the agreements made by presidential campaigns and political action committees to purchase time when advertising will be aired. Information gathered included the name of the committee making the purchase, the dates the ad spots began airing or will air and ending dates, the number of spots bought and the gross amount spent.