It's hard to imagine there's much of a public appetite for campaign commercials right now. We're five months removed from the last Election Day, and we're 19 months from the next one. For that matter, we're eight months from the Iowa caucuses and five months from the first debate. It's way too early for TV ads, right?
Apparently not. The fact that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ran campaign ads over the weekend is itself a noteworthy development for the cycle, given that these are the first spots of the year, but even more striking is who the Texas Republican is targeting and how. Here's the script of Cruz's new ad, named "Blessing."
"Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the household. God's blessing has been on America, from the very beginning of this nation. Over and over again, when we faced impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge. This is our fight, and that is why I'm running for president of the United States."
Three seconds into the spot, viewers see the Cruz family praying. Twelve seconds into the ad, viewers see some other children praying. Twenty seconds in, viewers see yet another person praying.
It's not just the content, either. The Washington Post's report added, Cruz "has reserved time during 'Killing Jesus,' a documentary-style adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's book that will run four times this weekend on Fox News.... The campaign has also purchased ads statewide in the early-voting states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina during NBC's 'A.D.: The Bible Continues' on Easter Sunday."
In late 2007, just a week before Christmas, Mike Huckabee launched a television ad in Iowa that appeared to have a well lit cross behind the former governor. It seemed like a subtle effort to combine political and religious messages,
Eight years later, Cruz has abandoned subtlety altogether. Indeed, the ad -- its message, its visuals, its name, its timing, and its placement -- come on the heels of his campaign launch at Liberty University, a right-wing evangelical college founded by radical TV preacher Jerry Falwell. (Footage from that speech also appears in the campaign ad,)
It stands to reason that far-right candidates running in a crowded GOP field are going to take every opportunity to appeal to far-right social conservatives, but if Cruz's over-the-top commercial is the opening salvo, I shudder to think just how theocratic Republican messaging will become by, say, October, with several candidates trying to outdo each other.
We'll see soon enough the degree to which this works out for Cruz, but it's worth remembering that there have been plenty of theocentric candidates in recent cycles, and they tended to hit a ceiling of support fairly quickly. TV preacher Pat Robertson fared very well in Iowa in 1988, finishing second, before quickly fading. Alan Keyes tried a similar pitch in 1996. Gary Bauer built his campaign around his Christianity in 2000. Mike Huckabee focused heavily on social conservatives in 2008, followed by Rick Santorum in 2012.
Not one of these candidates seriously competed for the Republican presidential nomination.
In fairness to Cruz, I'm sure his message will broaden in the coming months, and not every ad will name-check Jesus Christ, at least not in the first sentence.
But the Texas senator is nevertheless first out of the gate, laying down an aggressive marker for every other GOP presidential hopeful who intends to make inroads with the religious right.