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Ad Wars 2016: Can John Kasich Score by Going Positive?

While the other Republicans assail each other in New Hampshire, the Ohio governor tries a radical experiment. Plus: This week’s ad round-up.

"Muddier," New Day for America

A few days after the sixth Republican debate in mid-January, John Kasich sat down with talk-show host Hugh Hewitt to explain what differentiates him from the crowded Republican field. “I consider myself the prince of light and hope,” the Ohio governor told Hewitt. “I don’t spend all my time getting people riled up about how bad everything is. … People don’t want to have to live in the lane of depression.”

Kasich is testing that theory in New Hampshire, where the four establishment contenders have been firing away at each other for months—with Kasich as the latest target. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and their allies are pummeling Kasich, who briefly surged as high as 20 percent in a New Hampshire poll last month. (Kasich’s support has fluctuated wildly; the latest state poll has him at 12 percent.) But with a few exceptions, he and his super PAC have held their fire, airing predominately positive spots that frame Kasich as a Washington outsider who can turn around a sluggish economy with new jobs and a balanced budget.

It’s a subtle shift in strategy, and a risky one: While Marco Rubio, the leading “establishment” contender, has gone increasingly negative after opening his bid with a focus on optimism and uplift, the Kasich campaign and its allies have veered the other way. For months, Kasich was the only candidate willing to attack Donald Trump publicly, and he has hit Bush for his outdated positions. But lately he’s been doubling down on the the “happy warrior theme.” 

On Monday, there was a temporary blip: The PAC backing Kasich, New Day for America, released a new ad in New Hampshire attacking Marco Rubio for voting against the Violence Against Women Act. Within hours, Kasich strategist John Weaver had called on New Day (which federal election law prevents from coordinating with the campaign) to take the ad down. By noon, New Day had hastily replaced “Kelly’s Courage” with an uplifting spot called “Sunrise.” 

To reinforce his “happy warrior” brand, New Day for America debuted a new ad on Thursday called “Muddier.” It pictured five candidates covered head to toe in black mud. “As John Kasich has risen, Rubio and Bush have gone negative,” the narrator says. “Doing whatever it takes to win is not presidential.”

Kasich is challenging conventional wisdom here: Underdogs are supposed to attack their closest competitors to gain ground. “Negative advertising is generally something that people who are trailing do as a last resort,” Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar, who studies political advertising, told me two weeks ago. By that logic, Kasich ought to be hitting back, hard.   

With the other candidates piling on Kasich, the risk of not doing so has arguably grown greater. Right To Rise, the PAC behind Jeb Bush, released “Quiz” last week, hitting Kasich for expanding Medicare and cutting jobs at a local Air Force base in Ohio. A few days later, American Future Fund—a dark-money group that Kasich’s allies have alleged is affiliated with the Rubio camp (his PAC, Conservative Solutions, has denied this)—aired another attack ad, arguing that his “budget raised taxes by billions, hitting businesses hard and the middle class even harder.” America Leads, a PAC backing Christie, brought out a third ad attacking Kasich Monday. “As a banker at Lehman Brothers, a Wall Street bank that failed, Kasich made millions while taxpayers were forced to bail out Wall Street,” the narrator says.

Will Kasich be forced to strike back and defend himself between now and Tuesday’s primary? “It’ll depend on how many negative ads are hitting him,” says Doug McAuliffe, a Republican consultant working for Christie’s America Leads. “But he’ll try like hell to stay a positive force.” 

The New Hampshire outcome will reveal whether Kasich was wise to bet that the ever-more-bitter negativity in this Republican race will leave voters disillusioned enough to run toward a “prince of light.” If Kasich’s counterintuitive strategy works, he’ll salvage his shot at making a run for the nomination. And maybe—hope against hope!—the proof that a positive message can resonate with GOP voters in 2016 will make the other candidates reconsider their relentless negativity. 


With new TV ads flooding the airwaves in the final days before the New Hampshire primary, we analyzed the ten most notable spots from this week and listed the rest below. You can see every presidential spot that’s aired this campaign cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Chris Christie: “Banker” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? America Leads, the super PAC backing Chris Christie

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire

Impact: By yoking John Kasich to Wall Street interests, America Leads is trying to poke holes in the Ohio governor’s image as a Washington outsider who created thousands of jobs. The spot is standard attack-ad fare, but the information about Kasich working for Lehman Brothers has received little attention in the campaign, which might make it more impactful

This week’s other new ad from the Christie campaign: “It’s a Simple Question” 

John Kasich: “Muddier” 

Type: Inspirational

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire 

Impact: Building off another ad called “Mud” released last week, “Muddier” shows not one, but five Republican candidates covered in thick, black mud. My only question: Why does Marco Rubio look like he’s twelve years old? 

John Kasich: “Sunrise” 

Type: Inspirational

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire

Impact: Even if the “sunrise” motif is a tad heavy-handed, this ad is unusual in that it has no voiceover and never shows the candidate’s face. That could help it stand out and make an impression on voters. 

Jeb Bush: “Turn Off Trump” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? The Bush campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire, where the Bush campaign is spending $4.5 million on ads this week. 

Impact: This is perhaps the most savage attack on Donald Trump yet, hammering the hotelier for his comments that he could could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and not lose any supporters. The ad lasts a full two minutes, which may help it sink in among New Hampshire voters. But with Jeb Bush funneling millions into attack ads every week, to little avail, you have to wonder if Jeb would be better off with a different strategy. 

This week’s other new ad from the Bush campaign: Backbone” 

Jeb Bush: “Granite” 

Type: Biographical

Who Paid for It? Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire

Impact: This ad is trademark Jeb. In recent weeks, the former Florida governor has taken to plaintively asking voters for support, and this ad is no different, with its narrator urging voters to choose the one man who “stands above” in this Republican field. 

This week’s other ads from Right to Rise: “Guts,” “First Job” 

Marco Rubio: “What Happened” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? Conservative Solutions, the super PAC backing Marco Rubio

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire

Impact: This ad looks like it was lifted from John Kasich’s playbook. Two weeks ago, the Kasich campaign launched a similar ad called “What Happened to Jeb?” which, like “What Happened,” asked why Jeb has squandered so many millions on attack ads. 

This week’s other ad from Conservative Solutions: “Both Right

Marco Rubio: “Trust”

Type: Endorsement

Who Paid for It? The Rubio campaign

Reach: Aired in South Carolina

Impact: Rubio seems to be trying to make inroads with Tea Party voters in South Carolina with this ad, which shows Tim Scott, a Tea Party darling, endorsing the Florida senator. This may also be a ploy to attract at least a few African-American voters in the Palmetto State, where the Republican primary is open to members of both parties. Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, was the first African-American Republican elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. 

Donald Trump: “Voters Speak” 

Type: Inspirational 

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire, as part of an $850,000 buy the campaign made last week.

Impact: With this ad, which projects confidence after he finished second place in Iowa, Donald Trump tries to make it look like his supporters are a diverse bunch, from foreign exchange students to African-American men. 

Bernie Sanders: “Endorsed”

Type: Endorsement

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in New Hampshire

Impact: As Time reported Thursday, these ads seem to suggest that Sanders received endorsements from two New Hampshire newspapers, the Nashua Telegraph and the Valley Times. Neither has done so, and the editor of the Telegraph called the ad “deceptive” on Thursday. But despite all his efforts, Sanders doesn’t have a lot of endorsements to tout: According to FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker, Hillary Clinton has racked up 466 points, to Sanders’s 2 points. 

Hillary Clinton: “25 Years” 

Type: Endorsement

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in the Charleston, Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg, and Florence-Myrtle Beach areas of South Carolina. 

Impact: In the Clinton campaign’s first South Carolina ad, former Attorney General Eric Holder frames Clinton as a champion of civil rights. Holder’s talk of “police accountability” may play well in the state, where winning black voters will be crucial to winning the Democratic primary on February 27. 

At the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive, you can view this week’s other ads: 

Keep the Promise I: “Bold Leadership,” “Trust”