Get Ready for the First Senate Campaign Ads of 2016

The incoming Senate Majority Leader aired 61 different ads during a meticulous re-election campaign. They helped.

If the just-concluded Senate elections are any guide, the first television ads of the 2016 campaign will begin flooding your TV screen sooner than you think.

Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who won a sixth term and the Majority Leader's job last month, ran the first of 61 different ads in March 2013, Elizabeth Wilner of the Campaign Media Analysis Group writes for the Cook Political Report.

You read that correctly—March 2013, not March 2014. As in, 500 days before the election. Will any senators seeking re-election in 2016 take a page from McConnell's playbook?

McConnell's campaign had the financial resources to get an early start. At the end of 2012, when he was preparing for the possibility of serious opposition in the May, 2014, Republican primary, and in the November general election, he already had $7.4 million in his campaign account. McConnell, further, had poor approval ratings in his home state, and so going on TV early would help him cast himself in a more favorable light. McConnell raised $21.1 million between Jan. 1, 2013, and Nov. 24, 2014, so that he could finance those 61 ads running a total of 25,642 times, CMAG data show.

That McConnell ran so many different ads underlines how much more professionally organized and sophisticated Senate campaigns are today than they used to be. Senate candidates are raising more money, beginning their ad campaigns earlier, and airing more spots for shorter periods of time. Advances in technology allow campaigns to react quickly to the news of the day. And campaigns are spending more on digital advertising, to suit. 

"In the era of microtargeting and use of ads to drive news, an incumbent’s tally of unique commercials is a gauge not only of competitiveness but of the sophistication and mettle of the incumbent’s campaign," Wilner wrote.

McConnell's most frequently-aired ad—it ran 1,201 times between September 11 and October 13—touted McConnell's role in negotiating agreements to avert the so-called fiscal cliff and end a partial government shutdown: 


A common McConnell theme was opposing what he said was the Obama administration's "war on coal." Twenty of McConnell's 61 ads mentioned coal; they ran a total of 9,106 times. This spot ran 1,060 times, including on Election Day:


McConnell wound up dominating the vote in coal country, setting personal vote-percentage records in some eastern Kentucky counties like Pike, the state's number two-producing coal county in 2013. That helped him secure a larger-than-expected, 15-point victory over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. All the ads paid off.

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