The battle fought through television ads is shaping up very differently this year than it has in past campaigns — both in terms of who is spending, and what kind of ads are breaking through.
It used to be that when White House hopefuls got enough money, they would plow it into TV to show off their political and financial muscle.
"Thus far, television advertising in the primaries has been more a sign of weakness than a sign of strength," says Elizabeth Wilner, who oversees the monitoring of political advertising for Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm.
Big-name candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have been holding back — though Rubio's supporters spent big earlier in the summer and have reserved ad space for later in the year.
But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has had a tough time getting traction in the polls or in money, has been seen in plenty of ads on TV in Iowa this summer thanks to a friendly, well-financed superPAC called Believe Again.
In all, superPACs supporting Jindal spent nearly $1.6 million as of Sept. 2, according to data from SMG Delta reported by NBC News.
The strategy for Jindal was to gin up support in Iowa to enhance his national poll numbers, and possibly earn a spot in the top tier of the GOP debates.
"It was definitely a bank shot. And it doesn't appear to have worked," says Wilner. Jindal will again appear in the undercard at Wednesday's second GOP debate in California, one of just four candidates on the early stage.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich started his campaign relatively late, but the superPAC backing Kasich put him on TV in New Hampshire for a good part of July. The data from SMG Delta/NBC shows spending for Kasich stronger than any other candidate in the race: $3.7 million and counting.
Kasich has qualified for the main stage for the first two debates.
Shift In Tone
The differing fortunes for Kasich and Jindal point to another change in the 2016 campaign cycle — which ads are swaying voters.
The Silicon Valley company Ace Metrix measures how people react to ads, and Senior Vice President Jeff Stewart notes, "Ads that have sort of a softer tone, at least at this stage in the game, definitely are seen as more effective, versus things that tend to be more screechy, more preachy in terms of their tone."
That may help to explain how Kasich was able to vault himself onto the main debate stage, while Jindal did not. A softer tone may also help retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on the campaign trail, as his poll numbers have surged. His campaign matched that tone when it took this ad into Iowa and New Hampshire:
But it may be defying the law of political gravity for these kinder, gentler messages to last much longer.
The Big Guns, Gone Quiet
Of course, there is one candidate who doesn't have to buy TV time — billionaire Donald Trump.
Elizabeth Wilner says the Trump phenomenon "is another factor that has sort of turned things on its head this time. The candidate who has not only the lead but a growing lead depending on the polling you're looking at, hasn't spent a single dime on television advertising."
But she also notes that Trump hasn't had to spend on advertising because he gets so much media attention without it.
Political scientist Ken Goldstein, with the University of San Francisco and Bloomberg Politics, says that is why some big-name candidates are not engaging in the ad wars.
In one sense, Goldstein says, that strategy makes sense: "Don't be screaming into the storm when you're not going to be heard. On the other hand, this campaign keeps going. At some point, it gets to be too late."
As of the start of this month, data from SMG Delta/NBC didn't register any spending in support of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. But in the past week, they have gone on the air. Bush's campaign announced a $500,000 ad buy targeting New Hampshire. A superPAC supporting Walker began a $7 million buy in Iowa.
Since Trump shows no signs of quieting down, those candidates and their superPACs will have to decide when it's time to fully unleash the ad money.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We are setting you up for the week of news here. You can expect to hear more about refugees throughout this week and also more about the presidential campaign in the United States. That's because Republican presidential candidates hold their second televised debate this Wednesday. With a record number of candidates, the debates certainly look different than in years past. And as NPR's Peter Overby explains, the battle fought through TV ads also looks quite different.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Some of the candidates have had a tough time getting traction or money. One of those is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. But he's been on TV in Iowa this summer thanks to a friendly, well-financed superPAC.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
BOBBY JINDAL: The folks want to immigrate to America. They should do so legally. They should adopt our values. They should learn English, and they should roll up your sleeves and get to work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bobby Jindal for president.
OVERBY: The strategy here was to jet up support in Iowa, which would enhance Jindal's national poll numbers, which would qualify him for the top tier of the TV debates.
ELIZABETH WILNER: It was definitely a bank shot, and it doesn't appear to have worked.
OVERBY: Elizabeth Wilner oversees the monitoring of political advertising for Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm. She says this is a weird thing about the 2016 primary season.
WILNER: Thus far, television advertising in the primaries has been more a sign of weakness than a sign of strength.
OVERBY: It used to be that when White House hopefuls got enough money, they'd plow it into TV. It showed off their political and financial muscle, but not this year. The candidates on the air have mostly been those who are behind in the money chase. Take Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He started his campaign relatively late. But the superPAC backing Kasich put him on TV in New Hampshire for a good part of July.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
JOHN KASICH: I think about, who is it that has the experience to balance the federal budget? It's very hard to do. Who is it that's had the experience in turning a major state from big deficits...
OVERBY: Of course there is a candidate who doesn't have to buy TV time. Billionaire Donald Trump leads the Republican polls and basically gets all the free media coverage he wants. Political scientist Ken Goldstein is with the University of San Francisco, and he's the political advertising analyst for Bloomberg Politics. He said some of the big-name Republican candidates - including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio - have held back from engaging on TV.
KEN GOLDSTEIN: So on the one hand, that makes a lot of sense, right? Don't be screaming into the storm when you're not going to be heard. On the other hand, this campaign keeps going. At some point, it gets to be too late.
OVERBY: And something else has been different about TV this cycle - the tone. Jeff Stewart is with Ace Metrix, a Silicon Valley company that measures how voters react to ads.
JEFF STEWART: Ads that have sort of a softer tone - at least at this stage in the game - definitely are seen as more effective versus things that tend to be more screechy and more preachy in terms of their tone.
OVERBY: That may help to explain how poll numbers surged for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson after his campaign took this ad into Iowa and New Hampshire.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
BEN CARSON: A mother's love, the power of reading and the ladder of education enabled me to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. Dreams, determination, dedication - together we can make...
OVERBY: But it maybe defying the law of political gravity for these kinder, gentler messages to last much longer. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.