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What campaign ads tell us about the state of the 2024 election ahead of New Hampshire

Attendees listen to Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at LaBelle Winery on Wednesday in Rockingham County, N.H.
Brandon Bell
/
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Attendees listen to Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at LaBelle Winery on Wednesday in Rockingham County, N.H.

Another $17 million in ads has been poured into the race to be the Republican presidential nominee in the past week, according to data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact analyzed by NPR.

That brings total ad spending since Jan. 1, 2023, up through Thursday afternoon to $275 million, and all eyes are now fixed on New Hampshire.

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Former President Donald Trump has led by double digits in New Hampshire polls, but former Trump U.N Ambassador Nikki Haley has been trending up in the race. And on the heels of his distant second-place finish in Iowa, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is still in the race, too, but with far less of a focus on New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has taken a bit of a back seat to Iowa in the ad-spending race, but still $76 million has gone into ads trying to reach New Hampshire voters. (Iowa saw the most by far with $124 million.)

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Just since the Iowa caucuses on Monday, $8.6 million has been spent on New Hampshire's airwaves. And it's been a one-on-one race on the air between Haley and groups supporting her against Trump and a super PAC supporting him. Team Haley has spent $5.6 million to Trump groups' $3.1 million in that stretch.

So what are voters seeing from the candidates and the groups supporting them in the final days before voting there? Pro-Haley groups are focusing on Trump and Biden being disliked, her ability to defeat Biden and appeal to the middle, and they argue that it's a two-person race between Haley and Trump.

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Trump is continuing to hit Haley on proposing cuts to Social Security, and the super PAC supporting him, MAGA Inc., is attacking her on immigration with an ad it has spent more than $1 million on in New Hampshire.

For Haley, it's all about Trump

Team Haley has spent $30 million in New Hampshire in all so far, doubling Team Trump at almost $15 million. One of the super PACs supporting DeSantis has spent $8 million, but it has not spent a dime since Iowa.

SFA Fund Inc., the super PAC supporting Haley, which has spent a whopping $23 million in New Hampshire, lets popular New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu be the pitch man from a snowy field:

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Independents Moving the Needle is a new group that's popped up to support Haley since Iowa. The group has spent almost $1 million in just a few days, featuring a pair of ads. One shows several regular people saying why they're supporting Haley.

The other features Bonnie, a former Trump voter who has switched to Haley:

Trump isn't changing it up

Team Trump hasn't really unveiled any new attacks or closing messages in New Hampshire since Iowa. Instead, the Trump campaign is running this:

"Americans were promised to secure retirement. Nikki Haley's plan ends that. ... Haley's plan cut Social Security benefits for 82% of Americans. Trump will never let that happen."

MAGA Inc. is pushing the immigration message sharply, echoing Trump's language on the campaign trail:

"Drug traffickers, rapists poisoning our country. But Nikki Haley refused to call illegals criminals."

Then a clip from Haley, in which she says: "We don't need to talk about them as criminals. They're not."

The announcer again: "Illegals are criminals, Nikki. That's what illegal means. ... Nikki Haley, too weak, too liberal to fix the border."

DeSantis isn't spending

As for DeSantis, his campaign — and the three super PACs supporting him — have spent a grand total of $0 on New Hampshire ads.

That should show just how much DeSantis believes he has a chance in the state.

But Team DeSantis seems frozen right now.

The New York Times reported that the principal super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, has begun laying off staff. While DeSantis was briefly in New Hampshire this week, his campaign is pivoting this weekend to South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 24.

"When Nikki Haley fails to win her home state, she'll be finished and this will be a two-person race," Andrew Romeo, a DeSantis campaign spokesman, told the Times in a statement. "We're wasting no time in taking the fight directly to Haley on her home turf."

But neither DeSantis' campaign nor any of the super PACs supporting him has spent anything on ads in South Carolina since Iowa, either.

In fact, the only groups spending significant amounts on the air in the Palmetto State this week are Americans for Prosperity Action, which is supporting Haley, and President Biden's campaign.

AFP Action is on the air with $1.7 million in ads currently in South Carolina, focusing on Haley being the strongest candidate against Biden. It might be a tougher sell than the former governor would like on her home turf.

South Carolina is similar to Iowa with a very conservative electorate in a GOP primary. And in Iowa entrance polls, voters who said beating Biden was the candidate quality that mattered most to them broke for Trump.

Democrat Dean Phillips is everywhere (in New Hampshire)

Democrat Dean Phillips and a group supporting him have spent almost $5 million in the uncontested Democratic primary in New Hampshire.

Phillips' campaign has spent six figures on an ad featuring none other than Bigfoot:

We Deserve Better, the super PAC supporting Phillips, claims Phillips is seeing a "surge," alleges that the DNC is "trying to suppress it" and features Phillips wondering whether there's a conspiracy against him with the DNC pressuring the media.

The Democratic National Committee, at President Biden's urging, demoted New Hampshire this year to try to promote South Carolina, a state with a sizable percentage of Black voters, to diversify the early primary state lineup.

New Hampshire hasn't gone quietly, and Phillips is hoping he can exploit that, sending a message and catapulting support for a presidential campaign. With the calendar shakeup, Biden won't even be on the ballot. But Phillips trails in polls to a write-in Biden effort.

The ultimate result will be important to watch.

Biden's questionable ad strategy

Meanwhile, Biden is running a Spanish-language ad in Arizona contrasting Biden and Trump, a veterans health care ad in Michigan, another in Arizona and Nevada about small businesses and another in Georgia and Nevada about prescription drug costs and insulin.

But this policy-focused approach is worrying some Democratic strategists, who believe Biden won in 2020 because of opposition to Trump. They say Biden needs to focus his reelection ads more on Trump — as well as on abortion rights because this is the first presidential election since the Dobbs decision.

Outside of ads, Biden's messaging has been shifting toward direct attacks on Trump, including on the issue of abortion.

After all, even though Biden's unfavorable ratings are high — Biden has the lowest approval rating at this point in a presidency before a potential reelection since Truman — Trump's unfavorable ratings in many cases are even higher.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.