Iowa Caucus TV Ad Wars Heat Up – What They’re Saying

We’re starting to enter peak advertising season here in the Iowa Caucus, as messages from presidential candidates compete with holiday ads on the TV screens. Starting Line counts eight different Democratic contenders with spots on Iowa TV this week, most of which are running in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids media markets.

Let’s take a look at what themes and messages each candidate is emphasizing in their latest ads.

Andrew Yang

In a move designed to show he’s serious about doing well in the Iowa Caucus, Yang recently placed a $1 million ad buy in Iowa. While he’s moved his way up into real contention in the primary largely through interest in him on the internet, his first TV spot is mostly a biographical introduction for voters who have only seen him briefly in the debates.

The 60-second ad highlights his parents’ immigrant background, shows off the time President Barack Obama recognized his business accomplishments and pitches himself as a job-creator. It gets a lot of his main biographical points in, while mostly just alluding to his policy priorities on automation and universal basic income. The words “universal basic income” are shown on the screen, but the spot doesn’t describe his $1,000/month Freedom Dividend for every American.

For policies, it touches briefly on holding big tech accountable, combatting climate change and Medicare for All. Yang’s position on health care is to keep private insurance available as an option, though this ad just states “Medicare for All” without getting into specifics yet.

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Most importantly, it frames Yang as a candidate outside the usual political system, something that’s worked well for the past two presidents in Iowa.

“Andrew Yang: parent, patriot, not a politician. A new leader who understands that what’s coming is the greatest economic transformation in history,” the voiceover in the ad says.

Starting tomorrow, Yang has two new 30-second ads starting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The first one features his family, with his wife providing the voiceover about their son with special needs.

The second one focuses in on the challenges automation is bringing to the economy, and pitches his Universal Basic Income plan as the solution. “It’s time to end a paycheck-to-paycheck America and begin a new way forward,” Yang closes the ad with.

Steve Bullock

Bullock has two ads running in rotation throughout Iowa, in which he’s leaning into his electability argument. One features Attorney General Tom Miller, Bullock’s most prominent Iowa endorser, talking about the responsibility that Iowans have in choosing the next president. Miller talks over old caucus footage, clearly aimed at older, reliable caucus-goers that Bullock is targeting, saying that “caucus[ing] for a Democrat who can beat Donald Trump” is the most important thing this cycle.

The other spot attempts to do two things: pitch Bullock as the most electable candidate while still showing off his progressive bonafides. It uses clips from well-known national media hosts describing Bullock’s pro-union, pro-marriage equality stances and his expansion of Medicaid in Montana.

“He is the only candidate running that has won a state that Trump won,” Rachel Maddow says in a news clip that kicks the ad off.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg has a new ad out this week that features a number of Iowans explaining to camera why they are planning on caucusing for the mayor. Titled “Refreshing,” the caucus-goers describe Buttigieg as “thoughtful,” “sensible” and “interested in unifying people.” They also talk about why they support Buttigieg’s Medicare for All Who Want It plan, with one saying that Buttigieg is not going to promise something that can’t get done.

The Buttigieg campaign has been going through a pretty steady rotation of new creatives for their TV ads, helping keep their message fresh and making it less likely viewers tune it out. For the week after the LJ Dinner, Buttigieg ran a 60-second ad in Iowa that featured highlights from his speech there.

John Delaney

Delaney is taking a novel approach in his advertising this Sunday: he’s running a 30-minute infomercial on several Iowa TV stations. Believe it or not, there are actually a decent number of Iowans who take their caucus choice so seriously that they would block off a half hour of their weekend to watch such a thing.

“Our campaign hasn’t ever been about sound bites,” Delaney told the Des Moines Register.

Interestingly, this is a return to one of the more effective tactics that Delaney employed earlier on in his run. At a series of well-attended “America 2030” Iowa presentations early this year, Delaney would give an hour-long power point presentation about his ideas and goals (again, yes, there are Iowans who like this stuff). It was easier for Delaney to get the attention he needed for such lengthy arguments when there were fewer candidates in the race, so we’ll see how many tune in now for this in-depth infomercial.

Joe Biden

Biden is back up on TV after a brief hiatus with an ad that emphasizes Biden’s credentials for the commander-in-chief job. Not too many 2020 Democrats have focused heavily on foreign policy or national security leadership during their runs, so this one ought to stand out from the health care and economic-focused ads.

“This is a moment that requires strong, steady, stable leadership. We need someone tested and trusted around the world,” the voiceover says. “This is a moment for Joe Biden.”

Bernie Sanders

Sanders’ latest Iowa ad starts off calling Trump “the most corrupt president in American history,” then shifts its focus to greed that’s undermining the entire country’s democracy. The spot ticks through Sanders’ policy priorities of taxing billionaires, raising wages, equal pay for women, expanding Social Security and implementing Medicare for All.

As the Washington Post reported, the anti-corruption theme featured here is one Sanders’ advisers have long urged him to pursue.

Tom Steyer

Steyer has been up on the air in Iowa since his campaign launched back in July (he has apparently accounted for 67% of all TV ad spending by the Democratic candidates), and his latest spot also focuses on corporate corruption in politics.

“If we break the corporate stranglehold on our democracy, we will get health care as a right for every single American,” Steyer says in a long clip from one of his speeches in the ad.

Steyer’s message has increasingly focused in on corporate greed lately, mirroring some of Elizabeth Warren’s best talking points.

Julian Castro

Castro put up a relatively small ad buy in Iowa as his campaign seems headed toward a finale. Its main point is centered on who can beat Trump, to which Castro offers himself up as the most capable, while photos of his campaigning in Iowa are shown on screen.

“In the face of his cruelty, I’ve sought justice,” Castro says. “To answer his failings, I’ve been bold. To address his corruption, I’ve been clear. To counter his lies, I’ve sought hope.”

Elizabeth Warren

Warren is a later entrant to the Iowa airwaves despite her financial advantage, starting her run of ads in November. It’s not clear which ad is running right now in Iowa, but a one-day spot she did back in September focused on her biography.

Her campaign also quickly put up a 60-second ad responding to billionaires attacking her wealth tax plan, though that appears to be running in targeted D.C. and New York markets.


Both Michael Bennet and Amy Klobuchar had been running TV ads in Iowa recently, but do not appear to be on the air this week.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/14/19

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