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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, January 11, 2013

The most striking aspect of TV advertising about gun rights and gun control lately has been its absence. In an election cycle punctuated by three mass shootings that killed 24 people and wounded 75, President Obama didn’t air a single campaign ad on the subject. Compare that silence on the airwaves during the campaign with all the confabs, talk of “executive action” and imminent proposals coming out of the White House now in the wake of the post-election tragedy in Newtown, CT.

But Obama wasn’t the only one abstaining from talk of guns on the air. Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s sole TV ad mentioning guns barely ran, and only in Spanish. In Senate and House races, the number of TV ads mentioning guns hit its lowest point since 2006.

These data from Kantar Media CMAG suggest that even in the era of microtargeting, when candidates can reach sought-after TV viewers more efficiently than ever, they see guns as a risky means of doing so. That proponents of gun rights would find it impolitic to advertise their support in the wake of Tucson, Aurora and Oak Creek isn’t surprising, but there hasn’t exactly been an advertising rush to embrace gun control, either.

Of the 1.2 million-plus spots aired in the presidential general election campaign, just 0.3 percent mentioned guns. Romney’s Spanish-language ad, which accused Obama of putting guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels through the “Fast and Furious” program, aired a mere 125 times. Most of the occurrences were sponsored by the National Rifle Association’s political arm as part of an ad campaign warning voters in Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin that Obama and his Supreme Court picks threaten Second Amendment rights.

The remaining occurrences were sponsored by gun-control advocacy groups. Instead of going for volume, these groups relied on strategically timed and placed “statement” advertising. The highest-profile among them, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, aired a 2012 Super Bowl spot featuring founders Mike Bloomberg of New York and Tom Menino of Boston. In early August, when the Tuscon shooter pled to a life term, MAIG went up in the Washington, DC market with an ad featuring some of his victims.

Neither the July 20 movie theater shootings in Aurora, CO nor the August 5 shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI inspired any change in the amount of advertising about guns. Instead, a group called the United Against Illegal Guns Support Fund advertised on MSNBC during the final commercial block before the first presidential debate on October 3. The ad featured an Aurora survivor, seated in a movie theater, asking both Obama and Romney to put forth gun-control plans. It also aired in Denver.

Further down the ballot, as this chart by CMAG’s Harley Ellenberger shows, the total numbers of Senate and House campaign ads mentioning guns in 2012—1,844 and 9,450, respectively—both hit six-year lows.

Unlike in the presidential race, however, Democrats sponsored far more airings of ads mentioning guns than Republicans did in both Senate and House races: 1,542 to 302, and 7,406 to 2,044, respectively. This wasn’t the case just in 2012; Democrats have dominated TV advertising about guns in congressional elections dating back to 2004. (Don’t assume that all Democratic ads favor gun control. Rep. John Barrow, one of the few remaining Blue Dog Democrats, aired an ad in 2012 in which he hoists his guns and says, “Ain’t nobody going to take ‘em away.”)

The evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the unpredictability and frequency of mass shootings and candidates’ growing aversion to risk, especially at the presidential level, have made the gun issue better suited for odd-year advocacy than for even-year air wars.

Second, the difference in Democratic ad activity between the top and middle of the ticket suggests that Democrats continue to feel snakebit on the issue nationally. In the 12 years since 2000, the first presidential election post-Columbine, the conventional wisdom has cemented that Vice President Al Gore’s embrace of gun control in that campaign helped cost him the presidency. The party’s next nominee arguably overcompensated by going hunting in Ohio 12 days before the 2004 election. Democrats haven’t really touched the issue in presidential advertising since.

One Gore strategist calls this CW an urban myth, arguing that Gore’s support for gun control didn’t drive his loss of any state; that many states he won had sizable gun-owning populations; (that, oh yes, he won the popular vote) and that Democrats these days should feel emboldened by demographic trends favoring groups who tend to support gun control such as young people and women.

Another politico who clearly doesn’t believe the hype is Bloomberg, who has incorporated the issue into his campaign for MVNP, Most Valuable Non-Presidential Candidate, and is spending considerable political and financial capital on it.

Which may assist gun-control advocates with a third conclusion: that the gun debate, at least up until now, has been unusually lopsided. In many high-stakes issue debates, one side has more money but the other side, however outspent, has more passion. In this case, the side with the money has no lack of passion. On a day-to-day basis, in the absence of nonstop cable news coverage of gun violence, most Americans who favor gun control don’t think about gun control.

As a result, the long-term viability of gun-control organizations and their wherewithal to advertise has been in question. Even since the Newtown shooting, only two new ads supporting gun control have hit the air: MAIG’s latest ad, timed to the second anniversary of the shooting in Tucson, and one by the Children’s Defense Fund. Whether the latest injection of cash and political capital changes this dynamic for the long term remains to be seen.

Elizabeth Wilner, VP Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), is Contributing Editor at the Cook Political Report