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The Iowa Ad Campaign

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION feature made possible thanks to Jennifer Glover Konfrst, assistant professor of public relations at Drake University. 

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The charts on the pages that follow aims to give a sense of what TV ads the campaigns, super PACs and other groups were running in the final two months of the Iowa caucus campaign. 

While the ground game and retail politics are critical in Iowa and there is considerable talk about the declining effectiveness of TV advertising, the campaigns, their allies and interested groups did not neglect the air war. 

News programming is prime territory for political advertisers.  Looking at local evening news, Des Moines viewers have a number of choices.  WHO Channel 13 (NBC) has News at Four (one hour), News at 5 (half hour), News at 6 (half hour) and News at 10.  KCCI Channel 8 (CBS) has 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts anchored by Kevin Cooney (>).  WOI Channel 5 (ABC) has 5, 6 and 10 newscasts anchored by Stephanie Angleson (>).  Different newscasts have different audiences and ratings.  For example, a 5 p.m. broadcast would have more retired people and stay-at-home moms among its viewers, while the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. broadcasts would draw people who have come home from work. 

The charts are based on a review of the 9 p.m. local newscast "News at 9 on Fox 17" airing on Channel 13 KDSM-TV in Des Moines, comprising a total block of time of about 62-63 minutes each day over the month leading up to Feb. 1.  I selected this broadcast after looking at the FCC political files for Des Moines area stations and noticing that a lot of campaigns and groups seemed to be making buys on it.

"News at 9" is the only 9 p.m. local newscast in the Des Moines market.  It presented the mix of crime, accidents, lighter human interest stories, weather, and sports that one would expect to find on a typical local newscast.  Lynn Melling anchored the hour-long broadcast. 

The sample includes eight ad breaks from during the newscast, and a ninth ad break from the conclusion of the broadcast and leading up to the next program, the comedy "Two Broke Girls."  On many Saturdays and Sundays there were abbreviated half-hour broadcasts.

Typical ad breaks went for two or three minutes, comprising four 30-second spots and promos for FOX programming.  In an ad break one might see up to two-and-a-half minutes of ads.  The opening ad break only had one minute of ads.  In addition to the standard 30-second spots there  were one-minute spots, 15-second spots (usually two 15-second spots from the same advertiser were run in an ad break, one at the beginning and one at the end) and 10-second spots. 

As noted there were numerous promos for FOX programming.  Many of the promos were for junk TV including Jerry Springer, The Big Bang Theory, Celebrity Name Game, People's Court, and Family Feud as well as for Comet [scifi channel on KDSM2].  None of these promos are considered in this review. 

The sample picked up with the ad campaign already underway.  Earlly on there were some isolated buys. T he campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was first go on air in the 2016 cycle, running a 30-second TV spot called "Blessing" in the four early states and nationally on Fox News over Easter weekend, April 3-5, 2015.  The first major super PAC ad buy came from the pro-Perry Opportunity and Freedom PAC, a 30-second TV spot running in Iowa starting June 5.  The Carson campaign reported running ads in Iowa starting Aug. 7, but then did not run ads on this broadcast for a while..  The Clinton campaign started its advertising in Iowa on Aug. 4, 2015, the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise USA on Sept. 15, the Sanders campaign at the beginning of Nov. 2015, the Rubio campaign released its first early state television ad on Nov. 24, and the Trump campaign started its advertising in Iowa on Jan. 5, 2016. 

Keep in mind that this is a very limited sample: one broadcast on one station in one media market in Iowa.  No conclusions about the overall Iowa ad campaign can be drawn from this survey.  The survey does not say anything about the amount of advertising the various campaigns and groups were doing; one can only tell how much they were doing on this one program.  A campaign could have a strategy of focusing on other markets, for example Cedar Rapids, or other stations in the Des Moines market, or other types of programming.  Campaigns target their buys using data from firms such as Scarborough Research which allow media buyers to drill down and target blue collar workers or single women or higher income viewers or other demographics as desired.  Reviewing larger blocks of time and/or other program segments, on other stations in Des Moines, on stations in other Iowa markets, would have produced a chart with more political ads and a different mix of political ads. 

Despite these limitations, the charts provide a sense of what was running, political ad density, the various groups running ads, and the balance between campaign and super PAC or other political ads.  Analysis later on may reveal further insights.