Why Donald Trump, at last, is running his own political ads

Trump's done just fine in national polls without the usual trappings of a campaign, including campaign ads. But now the Iowa caucuses are looming. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Biloxi, Miss., on Saturday.

After running virtually no paid ads in 2015, Donald Trump has produced his first campaign spot of the presidential campaign – and it’s just as hard-hitting as you might expect.

It starts with a grainy, threatening shot of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, side-by-side. These fade and are replaced with photos of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, superimposed on a background of police cars with flashing lights.

“The politicians can pretend it’s something else, but Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism,” intones the deep-voiced narrator.

That’s why he’s calling for a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, “until we can figure out what’s going on," the narrator continues.

Quick cut to shots of launching United States cruise missiles and bomb target videos. Trump will “cut the head off ISIS," the ad says, and “take their oil." Then it ends with video of illegal immigrants and Trump’s vow to build a wall on the southern border “that Mexico will pay for."

“We will make America great again!” says a fired-up Trump at a rally in the closing scene.

That’s it. Thirty seconds of Trump’s best-known political statements, moving so fast it almost seems like a music video instead of a traditional political montage. In that sense, it seems to reflect Trump’s extensive experience with television editing. The Donald does not waste time on waving flags or needless shots of himself appearing to listen to voters.

But the content may not be the most important aspect of this advertisement. That might be its sheer existence. Trump’s done just fine in national polls without the usual trappings of a campaign – ads, internal polling, a squad of campaign strategists, and so forth. But with the Iowa caucuses looming, he’s trying the more traditional approach.

Why’s that? Well, it’s crunch time, for one thing. Real voting starts in weeks. If you’re ever going to broadcast a political ad in Des Moines – or Manchester N.H., or Columbia, S.C. – now is the time.

For US politics, the period between now and Feb. 1 “will be a crazy, chaotic, and consequential next five weeks," write Chuck Todd and the rest of the gang at NBC News’s Political Unit.

And Trump, whose whole political persona is based on the premise that he’s a winner, losing in these early voting states might be uniquely difficult to take. His free media coverage might begin to diminish. His alpha-male insults about his rivals might begin to backfire. The GOP establishment, emboldened, might coalesce around an anti-Trump and strike back.

Right now that looks entirely possible. To some extent, Trump is underperforming in early voting state polls, compared to his national front-runner ratings.

In Iowa, for instance, he’s behind. He trails Sen. Ted Cruz by 3.6 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys. Iowa GOP caucus-goers are often disproportionately evangelical Christians, a demographic in which Cruz does well.

In New Hampshire, Trump’s in front, but by a few points less than his national lead of about 15 percentage points. The story is the same in South Carolina. If he loses in Iowa, are these advantages soft? Will his voters migrate elsewhere? That’s the kind of thing traditional politicians worry about.

Of course, Trump has proved that he’s anything but a traditional politician. Maybe his ad is just the latest epic Trump troll. Throw together a spot, announce a vague ad “buy” with a dollar figure attached, then sit there and watch the free coverage roll in as cable news re-runs your ad for free a billion times and pundits argue over its meaning.

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