On TV at least, Hillary Clinton is burying Donald Trump in Florida

An ad paid for by Hillary for America touts Clinton’s history of supporting various causes and her time as senator and secretary of state.
An ad paid for by Hillary for America touts Clinton’s history of supporting various causes and her time as senator and secretary of state.
Published July 11, 2016

Hands folded on a table, looking directly into the camera, the retired Army general speaks over dramatic music. "Donald Trump doesn't have the temperament or judgment to be our commander in chief. That's why I'm speaking out. For America."

The ad began playing in Florida last week and builds on a wave of attacks that have gone virtually unanswered by Trump, an imbalance that would devastate most candidates.

TV spending by Hillary Clinton and allies in Florida: $12.3 million.

TV spending by Trump and allies in Florida: $78,000.

"Normally that would be a very bad sign. But Donald Trump proved in the primary that the rules that we've always known to be true are no longer true," said George LeMieux, a Florida Republican and former interim U.S. senator.

"Donald Trump is a known brand," said strategist Karen Giorno, who oversaw the candidate's blowout win in the March 15 Florida primary. "What we'll do after the convention is start to counterpunch."

It's a striking contrast replicated across battleground states. In Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania and four other states that will likely decide the election, Trump is being outspent $43 million to $929,000 — 46 to 1 — according to ad tracking data reported by NBC News. In Florida, the imbalance extends to staffing, where Trump has about half the paid staff as Clinton.

The goal is to plant negative views in voters' minds before Trump can fully define himself, a strategy Democrats employed against Mitt Romney in 2012, and it began weeks before the GOP convention, which starts July 18 in Cleveland.

"From the moment it was clear he was going to be the nominee, Priorities said that we would do everything we possibly could to ensure someone as divisive and dangerous as Donald Trump would never be our president," said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that has spent nearly $8 million in Florida.

"That means taking the fight to him every day and aggressively spending resources in battleground states across the country. That's exactly what you're seeing us do," he added.

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The group's five ads in Florida cast Trump as too unpredictable to be commander in chief and insensitive to women and others.

"When I saw Donald Trump mock somebody with a disability, it showed me his soul, it showed me his heart. And I didn't like what I saw," a man with a disabled child says in one ad, referring to Trump's remarks about a New York Times reporter who has a congenital joint condition limiting his arm movement.

Clinton has spent millions more on positive spots in the state that trace her career as a lawyer to secretary of state.

On Thursday, the campaign released two new ads that contrast her experience on national security and foreign affairs with Trump, who is seen in one spot saying he gets advice from watching Sunday news shows.

That comment is from last August. Trump has since added a team of experts, though he continues to confound fellow Republicans with a shoot-from-the-hip style and by constantly steering off message, as he did defending a star image widely seen as anti-Semitic rather than focus on Clinton's email troubles.

The lone ad helping Trump in Florida, a $78,000 buy focused in Jacksonville, is one from the NRA that features a former military contractor blaming Clinton for deaths in Benghazi, Libya.

"Hillary as President? No thanks," he says, walking through a military cemetery. "I served in Benghazi. My friends didn't make it. They did their part. Do yours."

Though still early, Clinton's advantage is showing, if slightly. She has a nearly 4 percentage point advantage in Florida, according to a R average of polls. Races in other key states are even closer.

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Trump's strategy has been unorthodox from the start.

During the grueling GOP primary, Trump largely relied on his celebrity and news media coverage while spending relatively little on traditional TV ads. He accused better-funded rivals of being beholden to special interest donors — a cornerstone of his appeal to voters being that he isn't.

"Do ads mean anything?" he said in April after winning the New York primary. "I think we're going to hurt the industry pretty much because people are going to say, 'What does an ad mean?' "

In March, the New York Times estimated that Trump had earned $2 billion in free media exposure versus very little in paid advertising.

But a general election is another matter, requiring not just a robust advertising budget but an army of staff.

Republicans were aghast last month when Trump reported raising only $3 million in May and had less than half that in the bank.

On Wednesday, however, his campaign reported $51 million raised for June, $25 million going to the RNC, which helps provide field staffing and other support.

Clinton, who raised $68.5 million in the same period for her campaign and the Democratic Party, has mounted an earlier and more aggressive ground game in Florida (a South Florida headquarters opened Saturday in Miami) marshaling field staff for phone banking and canvassing. The campaign is focused on registering new voters.

"We don't take it for granted. We know it's going to be a tough race. It always is," said Simone Ward, Clinton's Florida director.

Trump has about 100 paid staff in Florida versus the more than 200 Clinton has at this point. Clinton plans to roll out new offices in the coming days with a goal of matching the 100 Barack Obama had in 2012. (He also had up to 800 paid staff by November.)

Trump has an office in Sarasota and there are pending plans for 27 more across the state. They can't come soon enough for some supporters. Michael Barnett, GOP chairman in Palm Beach County, said he was concerned whether there would be money to finance two offices in the county.

"I'm not nervous yet because I know it's coming," he said. "A lot of folks are itching to start."

Barnett, like Giorno, said Trump would be aided by what he sensed is a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton compared to Obama, who carried Florida twice by small margins. Trump's campaign saw a surge in online donations following news on the FBI investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server, Giorno said. While the FBI did not recommend charges, director James Comey characterized her judgment as "extremely careless."

Trump was to return to Florida last week for a policy speech in Miami but canceled due to the shootings in Dallas. He was last in the state June 11 for a rally in Tampa that drew 4,000 people.

Clinton's campaign said she will be back as soon as scheduling permits.

Against it all, both sides expect a close battle.

"We're a 1 percent state," said Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign and executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "It will absolutely come down to the wire and we believe we're going to out-organize and get those extra two or three points we need to win."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.