Down in the polls, Jeb Bush was supposed to find refuge in his financial superiority. But just as his campaign enters the critical primary phase, the fallen front-runner is about to get outgunned on the airwaves by the man his campaign views as its chief rival: Marco Rubio.
According to media buyers and a POLITICO review of TV ad purchase data, Bush and his allies are on pace to spend $5 million more than Team Rubio on broadcast, cable and radio ads through the first four voting states – but for that sum, they will put fewer ads on the airwaves.
That’s because the vast majority of Bush’s ads are paid for by his super PAC – roughly 85 percent for Bush versus only 40 percent for Rubio – and super PACs get far less bang for their buck.
“A dollar is not a dollar,” explained Evan Tracey, a veteran political ad buyer at National Media, a Republican media firm. “Candidate dollars go much farther than super PAC dollars go.”
In Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, super PACs are confronting ad rates that can soar to nearly 1,000 percent more than the rates charged of candidates — an enormous markup that is sapping much of the punch from the $103 million Bush and his allies had amassed by mid-2015.
Data from GOP analytics firm Echelon Insights shows that Rubio will run at least 5,000 more broadcast TV spots than Bush in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada through February, even as the former Florida governor and his super PAC spend more overall.
And that’s the case despite Rubio reserving pricier prime-time advertising with bigger audiences. Echelon says Rubio has devoted 38 percent of its broadcast budget to prime time, versus 20 percent, on average, for the rest of the field. Echelon tracks only broadcast ad buys that are publicly reported to the Federal Communications Commission.
There are important caveats to this snapshot of the ad wars: Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, could still redirect millions more into the crucial February states. Plus, Bush’s super PAC is the only group to have reserved ads in states that will vote later, in March – nearly $15 million and counting – but those ads will only be of value if Bush remains a viable candidate then. In addition, Rubio needs to raise more money to fully fund his reservations.
Still, that Bush – and his financial juggernaut of a super PAC – would get out-advertised in the winter of 2016 would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. But after slashing his staff dramatically this fall amid a fundraising slump, Bush’s official campaign has reserved a little more than one-quarter as much airtime as Rubio: roughly $4.7 million to $16.7 million for Rubio’s campaign between this week and the end of February in the first four states.
On the super PAC side of the ad-buying equation, Bush’s team has reserved $17 million more than Rubio’s outside allies in those states. But Rubio’s $12 million advantage in candidate-booked ads more than makes up that difference: It is the equivalent, depending on the station, of between $24 million to $60 million in super PAC ads, as candidates are protected under federal law from TV station price-gouging but super PACs are not.
Take the NBC affiliate in Des Moines, WHO. Over the two weeks between December 28 and January 11, Rubio will pay an average of $219 per 30-second spot while Bush’s super PAC will pay nearly eight times that amount, $1,596 per 30 seconds, during the same period at the same station.
The gap is just as large within the same TV show. On the first Wednesday of 2016, for instance, Right to Rise will spend $2,750 for a single 30-second prime time ad on WHO; Rubio’s campaign has booked two ads at the exact same time for $300 apiece.
This story repeats itself in early-state markets big and small —morning, noon and night.
At KTIV in Sioux City, Rubio’s campaign is paying $625 for 30 seconds on the 10 p.m. news on December 30. Bush’s super PAC is paying $3,700 – a roughly 500 percent markup. The next morning, Rubio has two more 30-second ads during “Today” for $165 each. The rate for a single 30-second spot for Right to Rise is $650.
In other words, Rubio is getting twice the airtime for half the price.
Bush has long predicted that his television advertising advantage would lift his candidacy. “I’m gonna do something really novel,” he said last month in Iowa. “It’s called advertising.” So far, though, Right to Rise has spent more on television ads than any of his competitors – more than $17 million to date – only to see Bush flatline in the polls both nationally and in early states.
Inside the Bush operation, there is already some quiet grumbling about why Right to Rise, run by longtime Bush operative Mike Murphy, sat idle on its tens of millions during the summer – a time that saw Bush slip, Donald Trump surge, and New Hampshire rivals John Kasich and Chris Christie own that state’s airwaves.
And now, New Hampshire has emerged as an almost must-win state for Bush. Unfortunately for his super PAC, the state’s most sought-after TV station for political ads, WMUR, has been among the most rapacious in up-charging super PACS.
Last week, for instance, on WMUR’s 5 p.m. news, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson were all paying $700 for a 30-second ad. But the nonprofit and super PAC backing Rubio and John Kasich, respectively, were paying $7,500 for 30 seconds during the same newscast. Bush’s super PAC negotiated a relative bargain: only $5,000, though still more than seven times the candidate rate.
The Bush and Rubio campaigns declined to comment for this story.
But Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay said it was unfair to compare super PAC and campaign ad rates. “Super PAC spending and campaign spending should always be viewed separately,” he said.
Viewers, however, don’t differentiate between what type of entity is paying when they watch political ads, and ultimately they are slated to see more such spots from Rubio and his allies.
Lindsay said that while Bush’s super PAC can’t pay candidate rates, it’s maximizing its financial advantage by placing large ad buy early and locking in low rates in important markets. “That has helped us get better bang for our buck than other organizations, particularly the Rubio super PAC and the Rubio dark money organization,” Lindsay said.
That is a swipe at Rubio’s supporters’ use of a secretive 501(c)4 nonprofit to bolster the Florida senator. The pro-Rubio nonprofit, the Conservative Solutions Project, shares staff and a name with Rubio’s super PAC, the Conservative Solutions PAC, but it does not have to disclose its donors, who paid for millions in ads that aired over the summer and fall.
“Haven’t seen the Rubio press release on frugality did it include the $6 million in secret money TV ads they saved money on?” Bush communications director Tim Miller wrote on Twitter last month, as the campaigns sparred about their fundraising figures.
Jeff Sadosky, a spokesman for Rubio’s nonprofit and super PAC, defended the use of the nonprofit for ad buys: “As it has for the past two years, Conservative Solutions Project remains focused on one thing…advocating for a conservative agenda that will solve some of the most serious issues American families are facing.”
Campaign operatives acknowledge that super PACs buying TV ads is a poor use of resources, given the huge premiums they pay. But with their ability to raise unlimited money, and the strict $2,700 limits on direct campaign donations, the responsibility for TV ads has still mostly fallen on super PACs in the closing months, with the exception of Rubio.
“Ideally, super PAC’s would do the bulk of voter contact and field work, and the campaign would focus their resources on TV, since you’re getting 2-3 times your value for each spot,” said a GOP strategist currently running a super PAC, though not for Bush or Rubio. “That said, most campaigns don’t have the resources to make sufficient media buys so it falls back on the super PAC.”
Rubio, like most candidates, has not yet paid for the ads he has reserved in advance. The roughly $17 million in booked ads amounts to more money than his campaign had on hand at the end of September but because ads are paid week by week, Rubio’s team has been confident it will raise the funds to fulfill his orders through February. Top Republican bundlers, including GOP financier and billionaire Paul Singer, have gravitated toward Rubio as he has risen in the polls.
The Rubio campaign’s first flight of ads is set to hit the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire next week.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.