Welcome to Ad Watch, a Civil Beat series in which we analyze campaign messages from Hawaii candidates and national spots aimed at Hawaii voters.
Given that 26 states and two territories already have held Democratic presidential primaries or caucuses this year and that coverage of the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders race has appeared on news outlets for months, now might seem a strange time for Sanders to mount a $174,000 ad buy to introduce his “life story and message to the voters of Hawaii.”
But that’s exactly what the candidate is doing in advance of Hawaii’s Democratic presidential caucuses set for Saturday. The Sanders campaign believes Hawaii’s 25 proportionately allotted delegates are in play — there are an additional nine superdelegates, but their support is not awarded based on caucus voting — and it is desperate to make up ground on Clinton, who dealt Sanders a stinging blow last week by winning all five states voting on Super Tuesday II.
The Clinton campaign hasn’t purchased any pre-caucus TV time in Hawaii, according to a check of Federal Communications Commission information. Still, Sanders may have reason to believe he has a shot in Hawaii.
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While most of the state’s Democratic establishment has lined up behind Clinton, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard very publicly resigned from the Democratic National Committee leadership last month to endorse Sanders. Given Gabbard’s popularity — she won re-election in 2014 with 76 percent of the vote, and is one of the most visible, media-savvy members of Congress — her support could give Sanders traction he otherwise might not gain in the Aloha State.
For those who have been following the Sanders campaign nationally, these ads are familiar spots.
“America,” the one-minute, voiceover-free ad that makes use of emotional imagery and Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic song of the same name, is the true viral hit of this year’s campaign season, having drawn nearly 3.4 million views since its debut last month.
The ad caused a sensation upon its release, with no less than former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough gushing over it on his MSNBC show, “Morning Joe.”
“It’s gone viral already. I mean, my phone exploded last night,” said Scarborough. “People said, ‘You have to see this ad.’” And that was when the spot had just 500,000 views.
But a tug-at-the-heartstrings appeal may not be enough for a New England social Democrat, whose time in the national spotlight has been relatively brief compared to his rival and who was virtually unknown in Hawaii until his entry into the presidential race last year.
Hence the inclusion of “Real Change” in Sanders’ Hawaii media mix. Also a one-minute spot, this is the basic Bernie bio piece, introducing him as the son of a Polish immigrant, a graduate of public schools and a longtime civil rights advocate.
In addition to the bits on Sanders’ background, the ad touches on the candidate’s concerns about climate change, his support for workers and working families to earn a living wage and his interest in clean energy — all themes with appeal to Hawaii voters.
“American Horizon,” a third one-minute ad, focuses more heavily on the issues and policies for which Sanders advocates as part of his “revolution.” It features Sanders on camera at the beginning and end and delivering the ad’s voiceover:
“There are those who say we can’t defeat a corrupt political system and a rigged economy,” Sanders says as the spot opens. “I believe we need to lift our vision above the obstacles in place and look to the American horizon to a nation where every child can not only dream of going to college, but attend one.”
Viewers hear Sanders’ vision for access to free and universal college education, universal health care, equal pay for women and a living wage for all workers, all in the candidate’s own voice.
Showing his commitment to the kind of kitchen table issues that loom even larger for families here than on the mainland, owing to Hawaii’s high cost of living, is a smart move.
Featuring Sanders at his just-plain-Bernie finest — baggy suit, thick Brooklyn accent and a smile that seems, well, unfamiliar to his face — seems likely to appeal to the kind of voters who across the nation have been drawn in by Sanders’ “authenticity.”
The fourth spot portrays Sanders as a pragmatic and practical leader, able to get things done despite his political identity as a socialist who often has run as an independent and caucused with Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate.
It notes his recognition by U.S. News & World Report as one of “America’s Best Mayors” for his eight-year leadership of Burlington, Vermont, his passage of “more amendments in a Republican Congress than any other member” and his bipartisan work with Sen. John McCain to strengthen veterans’ health care.
“Bernie Sanders. A consistent, principled and effective leader. Building a future to believe in,” the ad concludes.
It’s a strong air game, one that has contributed to Sanders’ domination of the Democratic “message primary” on the mainland.
But will it be enough to give Sanders a lift following last Tuesday’s drubbing and a likely loss in this week’s biggest contest, Arizona, where the most recent polling last week showed Clinton with a 26-point advantage?
Clinton is also a familiar face to Democrats in Hawaii. Her husband won here by big margins in his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. When the Clinton campaign launched its Honolulu headquarters three weeks ago, three former Hawaii governors joined forces to officially open the venue.
U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono have been among a long list of Hawaii leaders to publicly endorse Clinton as well, speaking out for her in Hawaii and fundraising and campaigning for her on the mainland.
Despite the endorsement from Gabbard, this all leaves Sanders with an uphill road to win Hawaii with less than a week left before the Hawaii caucuses.
Though the Sanders campaign refused to share how much money is being invested in its Hawaii air war, filings with the Federal Communications Commission show that for March 18 – 31, the Sanders campaign has booked nearly $174,000 worth of air time on Hawaii TV stations, with 753 spots slated to air during that period.
Prior to the Republicans’ Hawaii presidential caucus March 8, only the Marco Rubio campaign purchased airtime.
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