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For better or worse, experts say Trump's first ad is 'quintessentially Trump'

In this photo taken Dec. 29, 2015, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Despite a year of campaigning, 10 televised debates and millions of dollars in advertising, most people in even the earliest voting presidential voting states are just now beginning to focus on their choices in the 2016 campaign. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
In this photo taken Dec. 29, 2015, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Despite a year of campaigning, 10 televised debates and millions of dollars in advertising, most people in even the earliest voting presidential voting states are just now beginning to focus on their choices in the 2016 campaign. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has unveiled his campaign's first television ad, highlighting three of his most controversial positions, with less than one month remaining before the February 1 Iowa caucus.

The 30-second spot, which Trump's campaign said would run in Iowa and New Hampshire, takes a shot at President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for not referring to ISIS as "radical Islamic terrorism."

It then cites Trump's call to temporarily block Muslims from entering the country "until we can figure out what's going on," although it provides no clarification of what that means or how long it would take. Legal experts have disputed the constitutionality and logistical plausibility of such a ban.

The ad promises Trump will "quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil." Slate questioned how that would be accomplished if he wants to destroy "every inch" of oil infrastructure and does not want to send ground troops into Syria.

Over video of migrants crossing a border, the ad repeats Trump's vow to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it. After Politifact revealed that the footage actually showed migrants in Morocco, Trump's campaign insisted they used that "1,000 percent on purpose" to show the danger of an open border.

The video, titled "Great Again," closes with Trump at a rally stating that he will "make America great again."

The ad was met with some mockery on Twitter, where many users said it felt like a parody of a Trump campaign ad, but experts and political strategists said running the ad now makes sense and the content is consistent with his core campaign messages.

Trump's supporters, unsurprisingly, had a more positive reaction.

"It's really only logical," said Republican strategist Tom Basile of the ad buy. "Even though he's done better than anybody else in the field at getting earned media, now would be the time just before New Hampshire and Iowa...that he would start putting money into television."

Trump has received far more free media coverage throughout the campaign than any other candidate, and as a result he has not needed to spend money on advertising, outside of a few radio ads last fall. In a statement releasing the video Monday, Trump said, "I am very proud of this ad. I don't know if I need it, but I don't want to take any chances."

While he holds a substantial lead in all national polls and is significantly ahead of the rest of the field in New Hampshire, where primary voters will go to the polls on February 8, most polls show him behind Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa.

Trump's campaign told Fox News he plans to spend $2 million per week running ads in the next month. According to Politico, sources say he has already reserved $1.5 million in air time. Some are skeptical that he will follow through with spending millions more, especially if the mainstream media continues to play his ads over and over again for free.

While experts found the content of the ad unsurprising, some say Trump's position in the polls and the way he has clearly defined himself during the race mean he does not need to take risks.

"It's a perfectly fine ad," said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University and former political media consultant. "It's better than most of what's running. It's far from revolutionary or unique, but Trump doesn't need that."

Several of Trump's rivals and their supporters have released new ads targeting early voting states or are planning to do so soon. Some are biographical and some take aim at other GOP candidates, but none are attacking Trump.

Basile agreed that Trump's new video accomplishes what he needs it to, for now, and it matches the tone of his campaign.

"It's quintessentially Trump," he said. "It's all about him, it's all about bombast, it is fairly thin on substance, it is even thin on believability."

He cautioned that Trump's promises, like forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall, sometimes go a step too far for many voters. Independents and some right-wing Republicans may be turned off by his call to ban Muslims.

"He's done very well harnessing the sound bites, but he's got to be careful not to sound sophomoric or even fantastic in his claims about what he can and will do if elected."

Berkovitz also felt the ad communicated Trump's attitude and style effectively.

"It's a relatively high impact ad," he said. "Very powerful visuals, very aggressive copy...he positions himself as opposed to Hillary and Obama, which is smart. He's very frank and I think will reinforce his position by saying 'radical Islamic terrorism' instead of all the nice euphemisms...It again positions him as the toughest guy to go against these terrorists."

Some of Trump's critics are less impressed.

"The ad is full of alarmism and fear-mongering," said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus, "in addition to being downright disturbingly childish by using the phrase 'until we figure out what's going on' as a part of the process of developing policy on terror."

Jacobus said the ad buy is very small and indicative of Trump's reluctance to spend his own money, despite his insistence that he is self-funding.

"The earned media value of it being a Trump ad, however, is what he is counting on propelling it to a level that a strong ad buy would have."

Arnie Arnesen, a liberal political commentator and radio host on the Pacifica Network based in New Hampshire, questioned the value of an ad that basically repeats what Trump has already said in his constant free media interviews and stump speeches for months.

"It's an echo chamber for absolutely everything everyone knows that he says."

Given Trump's standing in the polls, however, she doubts that will hurt him with GOP primary voters, particularly if he continues to bring fire and controversy to his live appearances.

"It's such a boring, predictable, unexciting ad...It's not good, but he doesn't need it to be good because he's good," she said.

The excitement for supporters is in his combative TV interviews, spirited rallies, and dramatic debate performances, and she expects he will save his more "off the wall" comments for those. The ad is just a reminder.

"This is kind of like the Velcro between the free media," she said.

Analysts and strategists said the ad may not win over new voters for Trump, but it will reassure his supporters that his campaign is active and serious, and it shows his opponents he is actually willing to spend some money.

"Will it help him? Probably marginally," Berkovitz said. "Would it hurt if he didn't run ads? Maybe a little."

With voters in Iowa and New Hampshire being bombarded with ads from the other campaigns and their super PACs, $2 million a week for his own ads may be a smart use of his funds.

"Trump always prefers not to spend his own money...Ironically, one of the richest guys in the race is being the most frugal when it comes to any kind of expenditures," Berkovitz said.

TV advertising carries less value in this election cycle, according to Arnesen, when campaigns do not know who is still watching ads on television. The things that have traditionally built up candidates in the past have not been as effective this time around.

"Why would Donald Trump need TV [advertising]?" Arnesen said. "He's had more face time on TV than any candidate in human history."

The free media coverage still carries undeniable value and Trump is dominating that.

Jacobus suggested that, given the amount of publicity Trump has gotten--"the media has acted as an arm of his campaign"--he should be doing even better in the polls. She rejected the notion that Trump is somehow a Teflon candidate who cannot be stopped.

"The dollar value of this free publicity is upward of $100 million," she said. "Any candidate spending that much would have better poll numbers than Trump."

To an extent, Basile said, Trump's success in the campaign is a result of his opponents' failure to define him negatively early in the race, ceding control of the narrative to him for months.

"The fact of the matter is that all of the mainstream candidates are to blame for Donald Trump because they didn't attack him early on, they didn't take him seriously," he said, and even after seven months with him in the lead, they have not learned from him how to appeal to the GOP base.

"Trump, whether you like him or hate him, is really well defined at this point."

While TV advertising in the final weeks before voting is a wise strategy, experts also argued Trump's money might ultimately be better spent on a get-out-the-vote effort in those early states. Trump currently has two campaign events scheduled in Iowa, whereas Mike Huckabee has 25 and Ted Cruz has 28.

"If anything, he maybe should have been investing in a field operation," Berkovitz said.

Observers have questioned the strength of Trump's ground game, but the campaign insists it is prepared.

"Human infrastructure on the ground" wins races in the early voting states, Basile said, and Cruz has built a strong army of supporters in Iowa and South Carolina.

"Other than the crowds that Trump is drawing to his events, we have not seen that much evidence of a sophisticated ground operation," he said.

Supporters obviously find Trump exciting and entertaining, Arnesen said, but "what we don't know is can he deliver one freaking vote."

"The worst thing that can happen to Donald Trump is if it's bad weather," she added. The more traditional candidates' campaigns seem to recognize that getting voters to the polls in a snowstorm could prove to be the key to victory in a mid-winter primary, even if they have to shovel supporters out and drive them to the polls.

"The only thing he needs to do is spend $2 million on shovels for people in Iowa and New Hampshire," she said.

If he wants to win, that is. And Jacobus is not convinced that he does.

"Trump is a fraud who does not want to be the nominee, nor does he want to be president," Jacobus said. "His campaign is a favor to the Clintons, to feed his own ego, and to take swipes at as many people on the long list of people he thinks have slighted him."

Although he says he is self-funding, she noted that he did have a super PAC supporting him earlier in the race that he attended fundraisers for before it shut down. His third quarter 2015 Federal Election Commission filings showed he received nearly $4 million in donations and only spent slightly more than that in the quarter.

Much of the money the campaign had spent at the time, aside from hats and shirts, went to rent for offices at Trump properties and use of his personal plane. She argued that his actual spending of his own money has been relatively low.

Fourth quarter fundraising and spending figures are not yet available.

If Trump intends to stay competitive in the race past the four states voting in February, though, Basile predicted he will need to start spending more.

"One of the things that Karl Rove understood is that you have to run a 50-state campaign," he said. "He needs to be looking beyond New Hampshire and beyond Iowa in order to be effective."

The constant media coverage cannot be discounted as a factor boosting his campaign, though. Whether in ads or in interviews, Basile does not expect Trump's controversial message to change at all.

"Trump is Trump," he said. "What you see is what you get...The question is, does he push the envelope too far to ultimately be successful?"

Trump's rhetoric may win over the angriest and most staunchly anti-immigrant Republicans, but Basile suggested his extreme positions will hurt him in the long run if they drive away independents, even those who agree that illegal immigration and ISIS are problems.

"That could be his Achilles heel...They may think that there's a kernel of a good idea, but then it's taken to an extreme that people might not feel comfortable with."

If Trump does win the Republican nomination, everything he said in his interviews, speeches, and ads will give Democrats ammunition to portray him as dangerous, and a first-place finish in New Hampshire in February is worthless if a candidate cannot get independent voters in November.

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"If you win the primary and lose the general election, you've lost," Basile said.

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