For months now, we’ve seen a packed schedule of debates and plenty of television advertising promoting or denouncing various candidates. But few of these ads have been aimed squarely at the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump. Only now, as he has come closer to clinching the Republican nomination, have the gloves come off.
“He thinks we’re fools,” says an anti-Trump attack ad sponsored by the Conservative Solutions PAC, which was formed to support Marco Rubio. “Trump picks on workers,” says another, from the conservative nonprofit Club for Growth. Another nonprofit, the American Future Fund, which is backed by the industrialists David and Charles Koch, is running a series of profiles of Americans who say they were victims of fraud at Trump University, a set of for-profit real estate seminars that shut down in 2010 but still faces three pending class-action lawsuits.
These are just examples of 17 ads attacking Trump that are running in three states holding primary contests today — North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — and are being tracked by the Political TV Ad Archive, a project run by the nonprofit Internet Archive. The project has been recording broadcast television in selected U.S. markets, indexing political ads and counting how many times they run. (Frequency can indicate the intensity and stakes of the race and the willingness with which ad buyers invest.) We looked at data from the Archive over the three weeks leading up to the March 15 primaries and saw clear evidence of a steep rise in attack ads against Trump.
All told, we tallied 3,365 times that anti-Trump ads have run in these states over the past three weeks (through noon on March 14). But we found different patterns of anti-Trump advertising depending on the state of the race in each state. Florida had significantly more anti-Trump advertising than North Carolina or Ohio, most likely because Florida is a delegate-rich winner-take-all state in which Trump is leading. (It may also be Marco Rubio’s last stand.) Eighty-eight percent of all Trump attack ads in these three states ran in Florida, 9 percent in North Carolina and just 3 percent in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich leads in most polls. (Votes are also being held in Illinois and Missouri on Tuesday, but the Archive doesn’t track media markets in those states.)
Political advertising tends to be cyclical, with big ad buys right before the votes. Selective ad buys can come at other critical times, and sometimes nothing at all airs locally for weeks or even months. The surge in attacks on Trump has mostly come since he won seven states on Super Tuesday.
The substance and sponsors of the ads have also varied widely by state. In North Carolina, one broad-based attack ad by Ted Cruz’s campaign aired more than 295 times (and accounted for 98 percent of the anti-Trump advertising in the state), all within the last week. In Ohio, the anti-Trump ad that aired most was this one by the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day for America. And Florida has seen the largest variety of Trump attack ads (a dozen different spots), including a total of 549 airings of this broad-brush attack ad from Conservative Solutions PAC in the last three weeks. Some ads have focused on substance, others on issues like religion or language.
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So far, the Political TV Ad Archive has tagged more than 1,000 different advertisements nationwide, 436 of which have run this year in all the markets it tracks. The project also analyzes the types of programs on which the ads are running; Nancy Watzman, the project’s managing editor, wrote a recent analysis of anti-Trump advertising in Florida from Conservative Solutions PAC, which supports Rubio: “Together, these ads have run more than 1,700 times in Miami, Orlando and Tampa, and counting. More than half of these airings — 56 percent — have been on entertainment programs such as ‘Jeopardy!,’ ‘Right This Minute’ and ‘Judge Judy.’'”
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Of course, Trump isn’t just being attacked — he’s on the offensive, too. His candidate committee has been running ads in Ohio targeting Kasich, whom the ad calls “an absentee governor” and criticizes for supporting the Affordable Care Act. It ends with the line “Just another all-talk, no-action politician.”
For months, Trump’s opponents have been no-talk and no-action in the attack game, only to finally step it up this week. Tuesday’s contests may reveal whether their ads, and those from nonprofits and super PACs, have had any effect on support for the Teflon Don.