The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton buying $2 million in ad time in Iowa, N.H. ahead of GOP super PAC attacks and as polls show her support softening

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H. (C.J. Gunther/European Pressphoto Agency)

Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton will air her first television ads of the 2016 presidential contest this week, her campaign said Sunday, as the candidate seeks to convince voters that she is a tough crusader with a softer side.

The feel-good biographical ads will go on the air Tuesday in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The spots focus on Clinton's life and family and do not mention Republicans.

A campaign official said the early August ad buy of about $1 million in each state is timed to get ahead of an expected onslaught of negative ads funded by pro-Republican super PACs. The campaign calculates that GOP candidates and their super PACs have spent or reserved $34 million in airtime in the four early primary states.

But the new 60-second Clinton ads also come at a time when Clinton’s poll numbers have slipped in both states and when more voters say they do not find her trustworthy. Clinton’s weakening poll numbers have caused Democrats to express concerns privately about her effectiveness as a candidate.

“We’re going to make sure everyone knows who Hillary Clinton really is — who she fights for and what has motivated her lifelong commitment to children and families,” campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement released by the campaign Sunday evening.

“Since Day One, we’ve planned for a competitive primary with Hillary herself working to earn every vote and, ultimately, the nomination,” Mook said. “This is the natural next step.”

The first ad, titled “Dorothy,” tells the by-now familiar story of how Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, overcame a childhood of abandonment and adversity and went on to live a comfortable middle-class life that afforded her children opportunities she never had.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign released a video about the lessons she learned from her mother, Dorothy. (Video: Hillary Clinton via YouTube)

Her mother survived, and thrived, because people along the way showed her kindness and a helping hand, Clinton says in the advertisement.

“When she needed a champion, someone was there. I think about all the Dorothys all over America who fight for their families, who never give up,” Clinton says to the camera. “That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I’ve always done this. For all the Dorothys.”

The second ad, titled “Family Strong,” focuses on Clinton’s own life, including her early work for the Children’s Defense Fund and work as a senator representing New York at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

“In Arkansas, she fought for school reform to change lives forever,” the announcer says. “Then, as first lady, she helped get health care for eight million kids.”

The ad also says that Clinton “made sure the heroes and families of 9/11 got the care they needed,” and that she “joined the Cabinet of the man who defeated her, because when your president calls, you serve.”

“And now a new title: Grandma,” the ad says before Clinton addresses the camera.

“I believe that when families are strong, America is strong,” she says. “It’s your time.”

The ad makes broad assertions, without the sort of precise claims that invite intense fact-checking. The language and themes echo Clinton’s splashy campaign launch in June, two months after she announced her candidacy and embarked on a sort of listening tour in the early voting states that was, for someone as well-known as Clinton, fairly low-key.

When she began her campaign, one of her goals was to show a more personal side in an effort to counter questions about whether she could connect more empathetically with voters. Clinton’s team of ad-makers trailed along as she talked to voters in coffee shops and bakeries in Iowa and New Hampshire, and held small roundtable-style discussions at a furniture factory and community colleges.

In the past few months, she has had to deal with continuing questions about her use of a private e-mail server during her time as secretary of state and with regular attacks from the large field of Republican candidates. From the time she left the State Department, public impressions of her have deteriorated and several recent polls highlighted the size of the problem.

A Quinnipiac University poll in Iowa, released two weeks ago, found that 56 percent of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable impression of Clinton, while 33 percent rated her favorably. Her upside-down image was nearly identical to that of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who was viewed favorably by 32 percent and unfavorably by 57 percent.

Nationally, her image is better than it is just in Iowa but still worrisome to Democrats. Quinnipiac’s national findings, released last week, showed that 40 percent rate her favorably and 51 percent say they have an unfavorable impression of her. Trump fared far worse, with 27 favorable and 59 percent unfavorable.

Clinton's support has decreased as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has excited parts of the Democratic base, but she holds a roughly 2-1 lead over Sanders, according to the trend chart, putting her in far better shape in that state now than she was at this point eight years ago.

A few weeks ago, the Clinton campaign announced that it had reserved $7.7 million in advertising time for Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that hold the first two contests in the nominating process. At that time, officials said that the ads could begin as early as November and gave no indication that she would start a flight of ads far earlier.

Communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Sunday night that campaign officials had planned all along to begin advertising in August. “The question was would she raise enough money that we felt like we could start in August and the money came in,” she said.

Palmieri said the goal of the ads is not specifically aimed at turning around those numbers. “I understand that there is a lot of focus on her numbers but she is still largely beating everyone in most polls,” she said. “So we feel pretty good about that. But we want to start telling her story through paid media, too.”

The broader goal, Palmieri said, is to convince voters that Clinton “understands what your life is like, that she understands your problems, that she can get the job done and that you can count on her to fight for you.”

The initial television buy is for five weeks, a span that may include other ads beyond those previewed by the campaign Sunday. In Iowa, the ads will air in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets. In New Hampshire, the spots will air nearly statewide, with airtime purchased in the Manchester-Boston market and the Burlington market.

Eight years ago this month, Clinton began airing her first ads in Iowa. But then she was locked in a far more competitive race than she appears to be today. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of likely caucus participants released in early August 2007 found a three-way dead heat, with then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) at 27 percent, and Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) both at 26 percent.

The first Iowa ad she aired in 2007 was not as personal as the two spots that will begin airing Tuesday, although it was described in an Associated Press account as an effort to soften her image.