By Niall Stanage - 08-25-16 06:00 AM EDT
Hillary Clinton has buried Donald Trump with an avalanche of negative TV ads in an effort to kill off the Republican's campaign before he starts to fire back.
Clinton's campaign had spent about $60 million on television ads before Trump went on the air for the first time with a $4 million buy in four swing states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Many of Clinton's ads have been attacks against Trump for being rash, lacking in basic decency, or for engaging in outsourcing as a businessman only to oppose it as a candidate.
When advertising from outside groups backing Clinton's candidacy is factored in, the disparity in the TV "air war" is even more startling.
The money spent on all pro-Clinton advertising had reached $104 million by last week, according to data from NBC News and Advertising Analytics. All pro-Trump advertising reaches about one-ninth of that figure.
It's a statistic that causes consternation even among some Republican strategists, who say Trump risks being defined by his opponent.
"Most of the time ad-buyers are smart enough to watch where this is going and they try to at least do something to balance things out," said Will Ritter, a co-founder of the GOP ad firm Poolhouse. "We've never had a presidential campaign committing the political malpractice of not advertising at all, proportional to that what their competitor is doing. I can't think of any more lopsided example."
President Clinton in 1996 and President Obama in 2012 reaped big dividends by quickly defining Bob Dole and Mitt Romney, respectively, with early television ads.
Outside groups did the same for President George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection effort against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Clinton's lead in battleground-state polling suggests her TV advertising is working.
Clinton has a nationwide lead of 5.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average, but an even greater advantage in usually hard-fought states where her advertising has been focused, including Colorado (10.8 points), Virginia (12.8 points) and Pennsylvania (9.2 points).
Still, the evidence is not entirely clear-cut. Clinton has more modest leads in other states where she has advertised heavily, including Ohio and Florida. It is also almost impossible to disentangle whether Trump has been hurt more by the ad disparity or by a series of recent campaign missteps.
Referring to the ad campaign, veteran GOP ad-maker Fred Davis said, "I think it is actually less of a big deal than one would think. Does it have much to do with her being ahead? I don't think so. I think the bigger thing is the tremendous stumbles that the Trump campaign has endured over the past few weeks."
Davis noted, as did other sources who spoke to The Hill, that Trump's capacity to generate his own publicity is unparalleled. This may make TV adverting less important for the GOP nominee. His name is known almost universally and, for good or bad, he never ceases to dominate the headlines for long.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in political advertising, argued that Trump's propensity to verbally attack Clinton in an incendiary way essentially made his rallies and interviews into "attack ads" all of their own.
"He says something so controversial every day that you have to cover it," Geer said. "It used to be that the attack ads were grist for the journalistic narrative. Now, journalistic coverage is driven just by what Trump says."
Still, even some independent experts are skeptical that Trump's abilities as a media manipulator are so great as to neutralize such a big gap in ad spending.
"I think the Trump campaign is living on the assumption that TV ads are overrated. He won the primary while spending virtually nothing on TV," said Terry Madonna, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and an expert on the state's politics.
Still, Madonna added, "I don't think you can win a presidential election in terms of your own personal appearances at rallies. We know that TV advertising has historically been effective. We do have this hyper-partisan division in our country and the commercials probably aren't moving as many people as they have in the past. But to not use them seems almost preposterous."
Other experts noted that TV ads can create a virtuous circle, whereby a candidate is boosted in the polls, and other necessities for a campaign - financial donors or campaign volunteers - are more easy to come by as a result.
In North Carolina, for example, current polls suggest a slight advantage for Clinton in a state a Democrat has carried only twice in the past half-century.
"Clearly it is having an impact here," said Scott Falmlen, a Democratic strategist in the Tarheel State. "The TV ads have lead to a very neck-and-neck race, and that then bolsters the field operation, the volunteer recruitment and things like that."
Falmlen also noted that, as a TV viewer in the state, "for every six or eight Clinton ads, I see about one Trump ad."
Most of the experts who spoke with The Hill believed that there was at least some chance for Trump to turn things around. But even Republicans said he had allowed Clinton to put him in a box from which it would be difficult to escape - despite her own vulnerabilities.
"She is an awful candidate and has a ton of her own weaknesses but those have not been defined by TV advertising," said Ritter. "And now Trump's advertising team has the challenge of going to undecided voters and saying, 'Hey, you might have heard that I'm a maniac who is going to destroy the world. Let me tell you my side of the story.'"