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Ben McAdams, Burgess Owens, outside groups unleash a barrage of ads

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News/pool) 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens participates in a Utah Debate Commission debate with his opponent Rep. Ben McAdams, left, at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Every time you turn on the TV, it seems it’s wall-to-wall ads about the race in Utah’s 4th District. You’re not hallucinating. Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens, along with outside groups, have run a gargantuan number of ads over the last week.

These ads can be an indication of how the candidates think the race is going in one of the most watched House districts in the country.

According to figures provided by Advertising Analytics, McAdams, Owens, and outside groups aired ads nearly 3,500 times on broadcast TV and cable television between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30 at a total cost of more than $1.8 million. That works out to an average of 20 commercials per hour, every hour for seven days straight. Those numbers do not include spending on digital ads or other platforms.

A review of the commercials shows the candidates are taking different approaches as Election Day nears.

Owens is airing two commercials, both of them leveling several attacks on McAdams while highlighting his successful battle against cancer and charity work.

McAdams has 10 commercials in heavy rotation. Four are attack ads against Owens, while the remaining six are positive commercials that don’t mention Owens.

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said it appears that Owens is using a barrage of negative ads to drive down the favorable view of McAdams among voters in the final days of the election.

“These commercials that are coming from Owens seem to be having that effect,” Perry said. “In polling we’ve been doing, his [McAdams] unfavorables have been going up. It went up 11% from September to October.”

The most recent public survey, conducted for the Hinckley Institute and the Deseret News, showed Owens hanging on to a slim one-point lead over McAdams, 46% to 45%. That same poll showed 47% of voters viewed McAdams unfavorably, which was up from 36% the previous month. Owens also saw his unfavorable ratings increase nine points from 33% to 42% in that time.
Earlier this week, Owens complained after one of his online ads was rejected by the Deseret News. That ad claimed McAdams had been investigated by the FBI for corruption but did not say he was cleared. Owens makes the same claim in his two current television ads.

Owens' exclusive use of negative ads may be a sign that the challenger thinks his best path to victory is peeling support away from McAdams, rather than trying to find undecided voters. Polling earlier this month suggested maybe 5% of voters had not made up their minds yet.

McAdams' mix of positive and negative messages implies his campaign likely feels good about where they stand, and now they’re focused on shoring up their own supporters while not ceding any ground to Owens.

“These campaigns are in the ninth round of the match," Perry said. “They’re tired, they’re beaten up, but nobody is going to stop punching until that bell rings at the end.”

There’s also the question of diminishing returns. As of Friday, more than 850,000 Utahns had already voted, which means the two campaigns are competing over an ever-shrinking pool of potential voters.
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