Ad bonanza as campaign gets down and dirty

The first nominating contests are in the books. After months of talk, actual voters have cast the first actual votes. The bad news for the GOP is that the so-called “establishment” is 0-for-2.

We’ve had an angry row between two candidates over some campaign dirty tricks (and a subsequent allegation that the winner “stole” the election), a couple of interesting endorsements and a particularly damaging debate performance.

The fields on both sides have been winnowed a little and we’ve learned a bit more about how some of the candidates that are left might perform from here on out. And the answer is, really, no one knows. With five months until the party conventions, literally anything could still happen.

When it comes to getting their various messages out, though, the reassuring sound of money is coming through loud and clear.

More than $70million was spent on ads in Iowa while as New Hampshire – more than usual this time around – found itself a make-or-break contest, it was, simply, swamped.

North of $100million – more than 50 times, yes, five-oh times, the amount from four years ago – was spent by candidates and PACs on broadcast and cable TV ads in the run-up to the Feb 9 contest. The bulk of that was spent of behalf of Republicans seeking to differentiate themselves and gain the all-important momentum that can translate into fundraising and on-the-ground support heading into the next round of crucial primaries.

The tight grouping tucked in behind Donald Trump – the “still alive five” – showed that didn’t happen, but one candidate who has definitely benefited ahead of his home state primary on March 15 was second-place finisher Ohio Gov John Kasich.

And he built his position through a combination of an ad blitz and old-fashioned retail politics. Kasich glad-handed his way through more than 100 town hall meetings across the state, while according to Cleveland.com, “since mid-November, an ad mentioning Kasich… has aired an average of 18 times a day in the television market including the Granite State.”

His New Day for America Super PAC, meanwhile, effectively targeted his direct second-tier rivals, such as New Jersey Gov Chris Christie. Who Kasich chooses as his next target could be crucial.

Christie himself, despite being endorsed by the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, finished sixth and subsequently suspended his campaign, saying attack ads and the large Republican field had been partly to blame for his performance.

Before his exit, though, Christie might well have left a significant, lasting impact on the race, as his sustained hits – some called it a “suicide attack” – on Marco Rubio during the final GOP debate before polling day might prove hard for the Florida Senator to shake off in weeks to come.

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So now we head to South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Feb 20th and Democrats a week later (somewhat confusingly, the Democrats vote in Nevada on Feb 20th).

And if that’s not all too much to take in, there might even be a late, independent entrant into the race.

GOP heads for bare-knuckle brawl in Palmetto State

A Bush has never lost a primary in South Carolina and Jeb is already “carpet-bombing” the state with ads. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has two new spots attacking Rubio and Trump.

Trump had already returned the favor. (Cruz’s anti-Rubio ad, incidentally, was pulled after 24 hours when it turned out one of the actresses was a porn star.)

So get ready for a bare-knuckle bruiser in the Palmetto State. Local paper the Charleston Post and Courier has an interactive encouraging readers to report instances of political dirty tricks. Our guess is it’ll be pretty busy.

For now, though, the mainstream media’s fascination with Trump – fresh from settling his lawsuit against Univision and leading in the SC polls – shows no sign of abating; nor does the extent to which he pushes the envelope.

His recent response when a supporter shouted an insult about Ted Cruz had some running to see if George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” still stood.

Funny or Die produced a mini-movie starring Johnny Depp as Trump, based on the mogul’s book The Art of the Deal (or the “Art of the Dill” as Trump backer Sarah Palin may have called it).

Joking aside, though, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow put it on the night of the New Hampshire result – recalling that in 1996 Pat Buchanan also carried the state but was then heavily defeated by eventual GOP nominee Bob Dole – Trump’s win could either be a similar high water mark, or it could represent the “ascent of a kind of nativism” in the Republican party.

“If Donald Trump is starting here to become a Republican nominee,” Maddow said, “we’re a different type of country in terms of what our major parties stand for and, I think, we’re a different kind of country in terms of where the mainstream and the fringe find their medium.”

The coming few weeks should give us a much clearer picture of which road we’re taking.

*FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.

His column from last month is here:

Trump’s Reality Show Turns Politics On Its Head

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