What’s Playing in Des Moines

What’s Playing in Des Moines

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging.

With impeachment news out of Washington dominating the headlines, political advertising, particularly on television, has become an increasingly important tactic for Democratic presidential campaigns to break through the noise.

And with the campaign’s biggest ad buyer — Michael R. Bloomberg, who has spent more than $100 million on television and digital ads — absent from the Iowa airwaves because he’s not competing in the caucuses, the Des Moines market provides an interesting snapshot of how candidates are framing their messages to voters in the crucial first nominating state.

All told, 16 candidates have advertised in the market, Iowa’s largest, for a total of more than $11 million in spending (not including spending by outside groups), according to Advertising Analytics, a media tracking firm. The type of advertisements each campaign is running is indicative of the candidates’ current needs in the fluid primary field.

The top spender in Des Moines is Tom Steyer, the billionaire from California. Until Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, entered the race, Mr. Steyer was leading the rest of the field in spending by millions of dollars. He has dropped $3.1 million in the market, according to Advertising Analytics.

Mr. Steyer’s most-aired ad is a biographical spot, explaining his background in hedge funds and philanthropy and his work to increase voter registration. Candidates use these types of ads when their name recognition is low among voters and they need to introduce themselves before introducing their platform.

Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur with no political background, took a similar approach to Mr. Steyer, with more than a third of his $870,000 in Des Moines advertising focusing on two biographical spots.

Those ads have not created a breakthrough for Mr. Steyer or Mr. Yang in Iowa; they have both averaged about 3 percent in recent polling in the state. But both have reached 4 percent or higher in enough polls from other early-voting states or nationally to qualify for this month’s Democratic presidential debate.

The better-known candidates are able to focus more on the messages central to their platform. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has spent more than $800,000 in Des Moines so far, and the two ads he’s spent the most on focus singularly on defeating President Trump. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has spent over $400,000, and her two top ads each focus on a specific policy proposal: one on climate change and another on social security.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who aside from the two self-funding billionaires had the most money in the bank by the end of September, is the third biggest spender in Des Moines with $1.3 million, and is running ads tailored specifically to Iowa. “Iowa is poised to power America with clean energy,” one ad says, focusing on Mr. Sanders’s plan to combat climate change, with sweeping views of windmills across Iowa.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who trails only Mr. Sanders in fund-raising, spent $1.8 million in Des Moines. His top ad is a 60-second spot familiar to Iowans who have been following the presidential race, an excerpt from his speech at the state party’s Liberty and Justice dinner, where he had by far the biggest support among the thousands in attendance.

Of course, simply dropping money in Des Moines doesn’t always equate to rising poll numbers. John Delaney, the former congressman from Maryland, has spent more than $1 million in Des Moines, but his campaign has yet to crack 1 percent in recent polling.


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It’s been viewed nearly 12 million times on Twitter alone, a reach that political ad makers often only dream about.

Mr. Biden’s digital ad highlighting how world leaders have mocked President Trump was among the most successful this year in capturing vast attention online. So now his campaign is introducing it to what is often a separate audience — television viewers — by rotating it into its existing Iowa advertising buy, as well as a national cable buy on ESPN this Thursday during the Iowa vs. Iowa State college basketball game.

The message

Central to Mr. Biden’s case for the presidency is his experience in the foreign policy arena, counting personal relationships with current and previous heads of state around the world. It’s this expertise, he argues, that is needed to repair important global relationships in the wake of the Trump administration. But rather than clip his stump speech, the ad puts the critique of Mr. Trump in the words and facial expressions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and others.

The takeaway

For a president who has faced his share of negative ads, this is among the most cutting. Mr. Trump prides himself on appearing strong on the global stage, and this ad uses video evidence to drive home the opposite message. So while the ad certainly resonated online, it likely caught the attention of its other intended target: Mr. Trump himself.


After a two-week lull around Thanksgiving, we got two new debate-qualifying polls of the national Democratic race today — and Mr. Yang got the 4 percent he needed in one poll to secure a spot in next week’s debate. He is likely to be the only person of color onstage.

The polls also gave us some new information on where the leading candidates stand. Mr. Biden is still solidly in the lead, with 26 percent in a poll from Monmouth University and 29 percent in one from Quinnipiac University. Mr. Sanders is in second place in both polls (21 percent and 17 percent, respectively), and Ms. Warren is narrowly behind him (17 percent and 15 percent).

Mr. Buttigieg is in fourth, with 8 percent and 9 percent support. Those numbers are in line with most of his national polls from November, with the exception of a Nov. 26 Quinnipiac poll that showed him at 16 percent. It’s hard to say if he has actually dropped since then or if that 16 percent result was an outlier. And we haven’t gotten any early-state polls since mid-November.

Then there is Mr. Bloomberg. Money can’t buy you love, but tens of millions of dollars in advertising has gotten him to 5 percent support in both polls released Tuesday. That puts him nominally in fifth place, though the difference between fifth and eighth was within the margin of error.

— Maggie Astor, politics reporter


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