Beyond the Debate, Republicans Are Deep in the 2024 Ad Wars

Americans who don’t live in early presidential nominating states — that is to say, most Americans — might not be aware of the advertising wars already underway in the 2024 campaign. For months, Republican candidates have been on the airwaves, plugging away at themes we are likely to see more of during the party’s high-stakes first debate on Wednesday.

This year, they face an unusual challenge: Former President Donald J. Trump has effectively taken on the role of an incumbent. The rest of the candidates have spent tens of millions of dollars to introduce themselves to primary voters, stake out policy positions and chart a course to the general election — only to be overshadowed by Mr. Trump.

“I think of advertising as spitting out Ping-Pong balls,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who has researched political advertising. Mr. Trump’s influence, he said, means that other candidates’ messages often do not reach voters: “There’s this big, huge wind blowing those Ping-Pongs back in their face.”

The gamble for the challengers is that the wind will shift — or go away entirely.

“If your opponent is winning 57 percent of the vote and you have 2, there is zero percent chance you are making that difference up with advertising,” said Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Even in a typical election year, Dr. Vavreck said, the persuasive effects of campaign television advertisements are small, and fade fast.

“That doesn’t mean everybody polling under 10 percent should stop,” Dr. Vavreck said. “They need to be seen as a candidate who’s taking it seriously. That includes advertising.”

Here’s a look at some of the themes and strategies emerging in the campaign advertising for the more than a dozen Republican candidates.

How are the candidates dealing with Trump?

Republican candidates face an unusual challenge: Former President Donald J. Trump has effectively taken on the role of an incumbent.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

Many of the Republican candidates, particularly the lower-polling ones, do not address the former president at all in their ads. Others take indirect shots at him.

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and his allies are the loudest exception.

In a series of acerbic ads, a super PAC supporting Mr. Christie has ripped Mr. Trump over his indictments, his electoral losses and his impeachments. In an ad that ran nationally after Mr. Christie qualified for the debate on Wednesday, the narrator goads Mr. Trump to join him onstage: “Are you a chicken, or just a loser?”

Ads on New Hampshire and Iowa stations by the main super PAC backing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida have criticized Mr. Trump elliptically — for instance, asking why the former president is attacking Republican governors rather than focusing his attention on Democrats and President Biden. (Mr. Trump, one ad concludes, “is all about himself.”) In another ad, a man covers his Trump bumper sticker with a DeSantis one.

Other groups not connected to any candidate have spent millions opposing Mr. Trump.

Win It Back, a super PAC that shares leadership with the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, has bought $5.6 million in ads, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. The ads including lengthy broadcast spots in Iowa and South Carolina that feature voters who once supported Mr. Trump but are now looking for a new candidate.

A political action committee supporting Mr. Trump, in the meantime, has turned its attention to the general election, with a 60-second ad attacking Mr. Biden.

Who is spending the most?

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and his allies have spent $46.2 million on ads, including a huge outlay on commercials planned for the weeks after Wednesday’s debate.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

The main super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis has spent $17 million buying television ads, while MAGA Inc, a PAC supporting Mr. Trump, has spent $21.4 million, according to the AdImpact analysis.

But that doesn’t come close to the $46.2 million spent in support of Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, between his campaign and a super PAC backing him. That figure includes a huge outlay on ads planned for the weeks after Wednesday’s debate.

A PAC supporting Nikki Haley has spent $8.4 million on ads — about the same amount spent on ads for Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, between his largely self-funded campaign and a super PAC supporting him. Ms. Haley’s ads include broadcast spots in New Hampshire and Iowa that draw on her experience as ambassador to the United Nations, and a clip describing her as the “surprise rock star” of the Trump administration.

Perry Johnson, a businessman who has lent his own campaign $8.4 million, has spent $1.9 million on ads. One ad that ran in Illinois features him walking determinedly through a blizzard of computer-generated charts and mathematical equations, representing his love of statistics and quality standards.

Many of his online ads have included a plea for donations to get him over the threshold of 40,000 donors required to participate in Wednesday’s debate. (The Republican National Committee said on Tuesday that he had not qualified.)

Pleas for donors to contribute just $1 — a clear attempt at meeting the debate threshold — also featured heavily in digital ads by SOS America PAC, which is supporting Mayor Francis X. Suarez of Miami. The super PAC has spent $1.7 million on ads, the AdImpact analysis shows.

What themes are emerging?

Many of the candidates have appealed to anti-abortion voters in their ads.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Border security, China, a touch of Ukraine, inflation, cleaning up Washington. And, of course, the culture wars.

Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC has amplified his resistance to coronavirus lockdown orders, and lauds him for “pushing back against the woke left.” In a video clip in one of the ads, he says: “If you’re coming for the rights of parents, I’m standing in your way.” The group’s ads have also gone after Disney and Bud Light.

Another ad from the group aims to appeal to anti-abortion voters, quoting Mr. Trump relaying criticism that the six-week abortion ban Mr. DeSantis signed in Florida was “too harsh.”

The super PAC supporting Ms. Haley ran a digital ad in May that highlighted her “pro-life” voting record in South Carolina, and criticized Mr. Biden for encouraging protests after Roe v. Wade was overturned. “We need a president who unites Americans,” she says, “even on the toughest subjects.”

Perhaps no candidate has made more of his opposition to abortion than former Vice President Mike Pence, and his ads have addressed this head-on. One of his longer ads focuses entirely on his anti-abortion record.

Both Ms. Haley and Mr. Pence have used the phrase “the ash heap of history” in stump speeches that wind up in their ads — Ms. Haley in reference to the future of “Communist China,” and Mr. Pence in reference to the overturning of Roe.

What’s the visual style of the ads?

Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign ads often feature him speaking directly at the camera.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

So far, most of the ads have been pretty “cut-and-paste,” as Mr. Goldstein put it. Inspiring personal stories, a few grim shots of Mr. Biden, uplifting music, a few wives offering endorsements of their husbands, adoring crowds, American flags.

The entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (total ad outlay: $334,000, plus $240,000 more from a supporting super PAC) has made a slightly different presentation. Unlike other candidates’ campaign ads, his spots do not rely on dramatic voice-overs, but feature him in a room, speaking directly at the camera.

The super PAC supporting Mr. Scott tried another approach to introduce the candidate: ads featuring prospective voters speaking to the camera about the senator, as if speaking to their neighbor: “Have you seen him work a crowd?” “Did you see Tim Scott on ‘The View’?” “He will crush Joe Biden.”

Who has the best Ronald Reagan cameo?

Recordings of Ronald Reagan have appeared in ads for former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy.Credit…Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Does a 40-year-old endorsement count? An ad for former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — seeking $1 donations to help him reach the debate stage — consists almost entirely of a short clip of former President Ronald Reagan, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office and addressing the camera.

“If you believe in the values I believe in, there’s a man you should get to know,” Mr. Reagan says. “His name is Asa Hutchinson.”

Mr. Reagan had nominated Mr. Hutchinson to serve as the United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. The clip appears to be from an endorsement for Mr. Hutchinson in the 1986 Senate race. (He lost to Dale Bumpers, an incumbent Democrat.)

Mr. Ramaswamy invokes Mr. Reagan in a digital ad, saying the former president “led us out of our national malaise” carried over from the 1970s. Mr. Ramaswamy pledges to lead America out of its latest “national identity crisis.”

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