Des Moines Register
Published 8:20 PM EDT Sep 17, 2018
DES MOINES – High-profile presidential contenders may be playing coy with Iowans, but televisions in the first-in-the-nation caucus state are already tuned to 2020.
According to an exclusive Des Moines Register analysis of data from Kantar Media, more than 10,500 television ads related to the 2020 presidential elections have already aired on broadcast and cable channels across the United States this year. More than half of those ads have been on Iowa television channels.
Nearly all of the ads come from two Democrats: U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who has announced a run in 2020, as well as California billionaire Tom Steyer, who says he's focused on 2018 but has directed 90 percent of his groups' television advertising toward Iowa and other early-voting states.
With or without Steyer's advertising, that's a dramatic shift from 2014. Like this one, that year was two years before the presidential election, but just two ads focused on the 2016 presidential election were broadcast a total of nine times in Iowa.
"Presidential advertising this early in the cycle is unexpected, but I think things are increasingly unpredictable," said Madeline Meininger, a senior analyst with Kantar Media/CMAG. "That being said, if you had expected early presidential activity in 2018 to look like what it did in 2014, you would be shocked by how much we’ve seen this year."
Meininger said political advertising in 2014 included a handful of targeted early attacks on Democrat Hillary Clinton. This year, people are "playing offense" more than two years ahead of the next presidential contest.
"The starting line has been moved back even further," Meininger said.
Delaney dominates 2020 messages
That level of spending is due, in large part, to the candidacy Delaney, who announced in October 2017 he would run for president.
Since then, Delaney has bet heavily on Iowa, campaigning consistently and aggressively across Iowa. He's completed a 99-county tour of the state months before most Democrats have even visited the state.
So far this year, Delaney has aired more than 3,100 television ads, all of which were broadcast in Iowa.
It's further evidence that Delaney is banking on Iowa's caucuses in February 2020 to catapult his bid for president. He has yet to air television ads in any other state, according to data compiled for the Register by Kantar Media.
Delaney, who was largely an unknown political figure when he entered the race nearly a year ago, has been staking his candidacy on the belief that aggressively campaigning in Iowa before the rest of the field has taken shape.
"We're putting in the work early and when the field gets bigger next year, this down payment will pay off because it's going to be much harder to cut through when a dozen people are running," Delaney's Iowa communications director, Monica Biddix, said in a recent press statement.
Biddix said the Delaney campaign so far has spent about $1.5 million on its television ads.
"Congressman Delaney knows that Iowans take their responsibility as first in the nation seriously, so our campaign has dedicated time and money to introduce him to Iowans on the airwaves," she told the Register.
Steyer focused on 2018, through early 2020 states
Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, accounts for nearly all of the other 2020-themed political ads aired across the country so far this year.
Steyer appeared in Iowa and spoke on the Register's Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair last month, telling reporters that he has yet to make a decision about 2020.
"What I've said is I want to see what happens on Nov. 6 and then I'll look at whatever is going to be the most impactful, positive thing I can do," he said this summer. "What I've said is this: I'm not ruling it out."
But his ad spending may reveal more about his intentions. He is responsible for about 7,350 television ads across the country with 90 percent of those targeted to early-voting states like Iowa.
- Iowa: 2,722
- New Hampshire: 119
- Nevada: 1,151
- South Carolina: 2,701
- National: 599
- Other: 63
Steyer leads the groups Next Gen America, which seeks to motivate young left-leaning voters, and Need to Impeach, which promotes the idea that President Donald Trump should be removed from office.
Kevin Mack, lead strategist at Need to Impeach, said the organization's advertising is not tied to the 2020 election cycle and its focus on early-voting states is designed to get the attention of politicians.
“Obviously, politicians pay attention to what goes on in these early states," he said. "So when you’re trying to get noticed by these politicians while you’re asking them to do their job to impeach Donald Trump, one way to do that is to build activists in important states. So that’s part of what we’re doing."
He called the focus on Iowa a "two-fer" as they try to get the attention of Iowa's senior senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican.
"Between building the broadest possible democracy, getting the attention of people in Washington and staying on Sen. Grassley’s radar screen, it’s a winning combination for us with television ads," Mack said.
Steyer is hosting a town hall event in Des Moines Tuesday night focused on voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections.
Kantar tracked two other groups for the Register — Great America PAC, a super-PAC supporting President Donald Trump, and an organization called American Polling LLC, about which little information is available. Those have aired a combined aired a combined nine television ad spots in Texas and on national cable.
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