Jeb Bush has a problem that can aptly be described as an embarrassment of riches. His Super PAC, Right to Rise, is sitting on an impossibly large pile of money that it accumulated when Jeb was still viewed as the unstoppable GOP 2016 favorite. When Bush’s poll numbers started cratering, Right to Rise began making enthusiastic use of its resources, blanketing the early primary states with ads that were supposed to halt Jeb’s decline and send him back to the top of the polls. That hasn’t happened – at best they can make the case that the ad blitz has stopped the bleeding, but Jeb’s standing hasn’t measurably improved despite outspending all his rivals by a huge margin.
Now that 2016 is banging down the door, Team Jeb has to figure out a way to get their guy back in this thing, and the answer they’ve come up with will neither shock nor surprise you: They’re going to spend still more obscenely large quantities of money to carpet bomb the early states with pro-Jeb advertising.
The Boston Herald reported over the holiday weekend that Jeb and Right to Rise, having already set fire to some $35 million in advertising, has blocked off another $14 million or so just for the New Hampshire primary. The spending dwarfs all the other GOP candidates, and will ensure that Jeb’s awkwardly grinning mug will be an inescapable feature of evening news programming in the Granite state. According to the Herald, the campaign and the PAC have reserved more than 250 spots on ABC affiliate WMUR for the week before the primary, including “10 ads a day from 5 to 8 p.m. on weeknights.”
In addition to snatching up every available scrap of air time, Jeb’s people are also going for pricey, high-exposure stuff like Super Bowl ads in the Boston media market (two 30-second spots totaling $600,000) and a 15-minute pro-Jeb “documentary” that will air in the days before the primary.
On one level this makes sense. They have the money, so why not spend it? And with so many candidates vying for position in New Hampshire, Jeb’s big spending provides a tactical advantage: there’s only so much ad space for sale, which means every spot Team Jeb buys is one less spot available to his rivals. At the very least, he can single-handedly crowd the rest of the field out of the airwaves. And right now the New Hampshire primary is shaping up to be a race for second place, with Donald Trump commanding the lead and four or five other candidates – Jeb included – all within a few points of the number-two spot. In a tight race like that, small advantages can be decisive, and having lots of money to spend on ads is something that most people would agree is an advantage.
But the Jeb strategy gives rise to a host of problems. Political ads are a high-cost, low-return proposition, and an ad is only as valuable as the response it elicits from its audience. If we’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s that voters have not been terribly receptive to Jeb’s message, regardless of how frequently they’re exposed to it on TV. And Jeb’s strategy clearly prioritizes volume over precision targeting, which means that he’s upping the already high risk of burnout. Ten pro-Jeb ads between 5 and 8 at night is a lot of Jeb in your face. Eventually he’ll reach a point of diminishing returns on advertisements, and given the reception Jeb’s standing in the polls and the reception his ad blitzes have received to date, he can’t really afford to alienate voters are cause them to tune out.
Of course, he doesn’t have many other options. Jeb has two big assets remaining to him in this race: his establishment cred, and the gobs of money in Right to Rise’s bank accounts. Neither has done him much good to date, but aggressive spending of this sort at least gives the impression that Jeb is still fighting and is still in this thing, even if there’s no real reason to believe that he and his super PAC can spend their way to victory.