There’s this Tom Steyer ad that’s been annoying the hell out of me ever since I got to Iowa. It starts off simply enough. Steyer is sitting in a dinner, wearing that tie he always wears, and talking about how he’ll take on Trump.
“When he calls himself a billionaire businessman who’s good for the economy, I’ll remind him: I’m an actual billionaire with a B,” he says, “and he’s a fake billionaire with a capital C—for con-man, crook, and criminal.”
This has been bothering me, because how on earth is Tom Steyer spelling “billionaire” that there’s a c in it, and it’s capitalized? This is not how the language works. But the real problem is that I just keep seeing it. To watch TV in Des Moines in the closing days before the Iowa caucuses is to be submerged so deeply in messaging and darkly lit still photos and B-roll that you start to wonder if these spots are interrupting your local news programming, or if it is in fact the other way around. In 30 minutes watching the local ABC affiliate on Wednesday, I caught nine ads from five different candidates, and a bunch more on Good Morning America the next day.
The ads are a lot, but they do synthesize the basic arguments of the primary pretty simply. Maybe the biggest takeaway is this: With one exception, which I’ll get to, they’re all at least nominally positive. Although the campaign has featured sharp policy differences—boiling over in fights over Medicare for All, student debt, immigration policy, and, most recently, Social Security—these haven’t really made their way onto the airwaves. (Campaigns have been quicker to throw punches online and, at times, on the stump.) That’s a much different story from 2004 and 2008, the last two caucuses to feature large Democratic fields. To the extent that candidates are jockeying for position, they’re doing so in a way that’s more passive-aggressive than straight-up aggressive. Think of it as the subtweet primary.
Here’s what I saw on the ABC affiliate in the span of half an hour:
Andrew Yang: Yang isn’t polling very well in Iowa, and in Iowa, if you’re not polling well, you’re likely walking away with nothing because of the caucuses’ 15 percent viability threshold. But he has raised a ton of money for a political novice, and he’s spending it on a spirited direct-to-camera spot.
The businessman is sitting in an office that looks kind of like the Oval Office, which is something I do not have in my apartment but apparently everyone running for public office does. As orchestral music plays in the background and a clip of robots building cars flashes across the screen, Yang touts his nonprofit work and lack of political experience. “To defeat Donald Trump, we need someone with the experience of tackling the economic challenges of our time; I’ve done that.”
Elizabeth Warren: Touting the endorsement of family members seems like low-hanging fruit. (You really don’t want to be in the reverse situation.) One of Warren’s most prominent ads opens with her older brothers John and David sitting on a couch holding what look to be beer cans and promising to vote for her, before turning to other members of her family (including a nephew, who calls her “Aunt Betsy”). There’s no discussion of politics in the spot, but David tells us he’s a registered Republican, and that’s really what this ad is gently driving at—Warren’s career has taken her to Harvard and Washington, DC, but she’s at home in the heartland (in her case, Oklahoma), and a bunch of people who look like the kinds of Iowans who are voting for Joe Biden are here to vouch for her.
Bernie Sanders: If Warren is trying to soften her image, Sanders is trying to soften his ideas. In front of a black backdrop, the Vermont senator says that “for a hundred years, presidents have talked about the need to guarantee health care for all,” queuing up old footage of Harry Truman (did Harry Truman really sound like that?), John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama pitching the need for universal health care. Sanders, a favorite in the run-up to Iowa, has faced criticism throughout the primary from Biden and Pete Buttigieg (among others) over his proposal to replace the private health insurance system with Medicare for All. In the closing stretch, he’s placing his signature idea squarely at the heart of the Democratic Party’s promise—and invoking his chief rival’s former running mate in the process.
Joe Biden: Okay, this one doesn’t take a lot of parsing. And, if you’re watching it in context, it feels like an implicit rebuttal to the ad that came before it. Calling Trump “a threat to America and the world,” a female narrator calls Biden “the strongest candidate” to nominate against him and brings numbers and charts to back it up—national polls and surveys from swing states Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona. “This is no time to take a risk,” it continues [cough cough Bernie], and Biden is “the candidate Trump fears the most.” This is what passes for negative advertising in the Democratic primary right now, and it’s Biden’s closing pitch in a nutshell: The policy fights are just noise. The election is ultimately about one thing: getting him out.
Warren (again): Warren’s other closing ad offers a preview of how she’d take on Trump, contrasting her upbringing in (in case you forgot) Oklahoma with Trump’s crooked and coddled New York City rise. Trump inherited millions “from his dad’s real-estate empire,” while her father worked as a janitor. “He scammed students at his for-profit school,” it continues, “and “she got debts forgiven for students who were scammed.” This is a glimpse of a different kind of argument than those presented by Steyer or Biden, promising to expose him as a crooked capitalist and flicking at her experience with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Amy Klobuchar: Remember that weird New York Times dual endorsement? The Minnesota senator does. It flashes across the screen in her new ad, in which—speaking to you from a living room—she dismisses Trump as self-centered (“his tweets, his golf courses, his ego”) and promises to…not be Trump, basically. “I think the job is about you,” she says, before rattling off her areas of focus: health care, education, national security. Klobuchar is creeping up on the fourth-place spot in Iowa and teetering on the edge of viability (she reportedly turned down a proposed alliance with Joe Biden on caucus night) but is stuck in Washington for the most important week of her campaign, so this fairly straightforward ad will have to do a lot of work.
Bernie (again): Four years ago, when Sanders cut a memorable ad, set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Clinton backer David Brock remarked on the overwhelmingly white makeup of the supporters featured in the ad: “It seems black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.” A kind of gross and trivializing thing to say, for sure, but that spot makes an interesting contrast with Sanders’ 2020 reboot. Sanders’ feel-good closing spot features a clip from the speech he gave in Queens last October, after returning to the campaign trail in the wake of a heart attack.
“Take a look around you and find someone you don’t know,” he says. “Maybe somebody who doesn’t look kinda like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” The camera follows young canvassers trudging through the snow, Sunrise Movement volunteers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a little kid giving Bernie a high-five, a packed arena, all trying to convey a sense of momentum—this is a movement. The speech was in Queens. And whatever might have been true in the past, it’s a movement that, more than ever—and especially in this ad—also looks like Queens.
Just to cover my bases, I checked out Good Morning America the next morning and caught these:
Biden: If the former vice president is going to win on Monday, it’s going to be because he won the argument about what the caucus should be about. This ad starts off a bit more optimistic than the first one but ends up in the same place. “Imagine all the progress we can make in the next four years,” Biden says, over footage of very cold-looking Iowa fields and stock footage of families. “Affordable health care,” “a world where America leads on climate change,” and getting assault weapons out of schools. But. “But first we have to beat Donald Trump.” At this point, he doesn’t need to tell you who he thinks can’t.
Biden (again): This one’s called “Character,” because that’s what it’s about. It’s sort of what Biden’s stump speech would look like if it were a slideshow—starting off in the Oval Office (“It’s said that in here, your character is revealed”) before moving to Scranton (“But it’s in life where your character’s forged”) and tracing Biden’s career and family (“Who you grew up with…who you love, how you’ve been tested, and what you’ve overcome”). We see images of Biden with his two boys after their mother died in a car accident; Biden with his wife, Jill; Biden embracing his late son, Beau. Unlike a typical biographical ad, this one makes no effort to explain what any of these things are, or who the people are, because the expectation is that, by now, you know everything about Joe Biden. And that’s the point.
Bernie: Sanders, unlike Biden, presents what happens in November as only the beginning. This spot, which debuted this past November, features Sanders in front of a bookshelf, followed by a succession of famous rich people (Steve Mnuchin, Charles Koch) and stock art. “Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in American history,” he says, “but the greed and corruption undermining our democracy is bigger than one man, and so is the solution.”
Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. Here it is, folks: The one truly negative ad running in Iowa right now. The ad, from a group helmed by longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman (the group was founded recently and hasn’t filed a donor disclosure list with the Federal Election Commission), is titled “Electable,” in honor of the most popular and hardest-to-define word of the 2020 primary. As negative ads go, it’s fairly tame. A succession of voters explain why, although they might personally like Sanders, they don’t want him to win the nomination. “Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa—they’re just not gonna vote for a socialist,” one man says. Another voter says she has “some concerns about Bernie Sanders’ health” because of the aforementioned heart attack.
There’s one notable name missing from this list, and it’s probably not Pete Buttigieg’s fault that I haven’t seen his ads; maybe I should watch the Today Show next time. His latest spot in Iowa sticks with the subtweet theme, though again, it’s pretty simple to read between the lines.
“It’s time to turn the page from a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking, polarized by the same old fights, to a bold vision for the next generation,” he says, before nodding to “endless wars” and climate change. This is because the two men in front of him are both old, and work (or worked) in Washington. There are some shots of Des Moines’ nice riverfront park, and some footage of the former South Bend mayor listening intently and hugging people, and the ad ends with him surrounded by a sea of his own signs. He’s trying to hold back a smile, but it’s not quite working; he’s thinking, perhaps, that “this is totally going in the ad.”