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Campaign Ads In Iowa Reveal Dynamics Of Close GOP Race


Every four years in Iowa, about a month before the caucuses, something happens. People turn on the TV, and they are inundated with these.


MCEVERS: Presidential campaign ads. NPR's Don Gonyea is one of those people. He's been watching a lot of TV in between campaign events, of course, and he joins us now from Des Moines to talk about it. Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Kelly, I've become that guy who sits in his hotel watching TV for hours, just the ads.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) It's a tough one. So...

GONYEA: (Laughter) My mother would be ashamed.

MCEVERS: So give us a sense of some of these ads. I mean, what would I be seeing if I turned on the TV right now in Iowa?

GONYEA: Well, listen. Every commercial break, especially during local news or maybe sports or maybe Wheel of Fortune, you're going to see a political ad or two. There are still ads for mattress stores on and for the local sushi place and for the rodeo coming to Des Moines, but the political ads are really starting to crowd them out, and it's only going to get worse in the coming weeks.

MCEVERS: So let's look ads, especially in the big Republican field. Who's making the most noise there?

GONYEA: Well, there are two kinds of noise, right? The first, I guess, is who's been on the air the most, and so far for the GOP, that's been Jeb Bush. But he's still way down in the polls. I guess the other kind of noise is maybe more literal. It's the kind of noise that's meant to scare you with kind of big, scary ads. Here are some examples.


JEB BUSH: We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism. We have but one choice - to defeat it. I'm Jeb Bush, and I approve this message.

GONYEA: So scary images, dire-sounding music. Now here's Marco Rubio's approach to the same topic. He goes specifically at President Obama - again, the logic being that any attack on Obama is also an attack on Hillary Clinton. Here you go.


MARCO RUBIO: His plan after the attack in San Bernardino - take away our guns. And while ISIS is beheading people and burning them in cages, he says climate change is our greatest threat. I'm Marco Rubio. I approve this message because America needs a real commander-in-chief and a president who will keep us safe.

MCEVERS: OK, so what about, you know, Ronald Reagan's old 11th commandment of politics, you know? Thou shalt never speak ill of another Republican. I mean, how's that working out?

GONYEA: These candidates talk a lot about Ronald Reagan, but they're pretty much ignoring that advice from him. So Rubio and Bush have been bashing back and forth in ads. Then there's Ted Cruz. He is perhaps the frontrunner in Iowa right now. He's kind of looking over his shoulder at Rubio, so in this Cruz ad - it's actually a ad paid by a super PAC that backs Cruz. Rubio - Senator Rubio is portrayed as putting fantasy football above national security.


GONYEA: So there's dramatic music, and then bold letters appear onscreen, saying, ISIS - plotting to kill Americans and American enemies advancing. And then at the end, we see Rubio himself talking on the phone.


RUBIO: Yeah, I know I have debate, but I got to get this fantasy football thing right, OK?

GONYEA: Fantasy football - so (laughter) playful but a pretty sharp dig. And then there's another ad - right? - where Cruz himself is the target. He's mocked in this one, an ad backing Senator Rick Santorum. So you remember when Cruz read "Green Eggs And Ham" on the Senate floor?


GONYEA: Give a listen to this.


TED CRUZ: I like green eggs and ham.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ted Cruz is wonderful at reading children's fairytales on the Senate floor.

CRUZ: Sam, I am.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If you want someone to read one hell of a bedtime story? Ted Cruz is your guy. If you want to protect America and defeat ISIS, Rick Santorum's your president because...

MCEVERS: So then what about Donald Trump? I mean, he has not spent that much on ads, as we know, but this week, we did get his very first for-real pay-for-the-airtime campaign advertisement. Let's take a listen to it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism. That's why he's calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what's going on.

MCEVERS: So what's going on in this ad?

GONYEA: Well, Donald Trump may not need this ad. But he's got the money, and he is spending it. It's a relatively small buy. But here's the thing. This ad, like just about everything he does, is getting exposure and free replays well beyond whatever it cost him. Those replays, of course, coming on cable television news. The big question this time with this election is whether TV ads do still influence voters. We know they did in 2012, but that was four years ago, and the whole media landscape has changed.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Don Gonyea. Thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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