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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, May 21, 2013

As POLITICO’s Mike Allen might write, “Not The Onion: guns, immigration drive 2016 ads in IA, NH, SC.” The fact of these ads will pique the interest of anyone jonesing for the next big race. More significantly, the focus on guns and immigration suggests that 2016 just might bring the end to our decade-long drought of presidential campaign debate over social issues.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) has benefitted from $350,000 in positive broadcast TV ads raising his profile across Iowa markets like Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines and South Carolina markets like Charlotte (NC), Charleston and Columbia. And oh yes, on Fox News Channel. The ads were sponsored by Republican groups pushing for various degrees of immigration reform.

In first-primary state New Hampshire, Rubio’s own PAC has been one of two TV advertisers defending GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte over her vote against background checks for gun purchases. Ayotte is being targeted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control group; the National Rifle Association in turn advertised in New Hampshire against Bloomberg himself.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), 18 months out from what looks to be a pro forma re-election, has been praised in about $600,000 in broadcast TV ads for his push to increase gun controls, including by the likes of Jim and Sarah Brady and the father of a Sandy Hook victim. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), another mention for 2016, is getting similar props in a brand-new ad.

We know social issues are used to slice and dice the electorate demographically in ways the “big issues” of the economy and national security are not.

But a few TV advertising stats help us quantify just how completely social issues have disappeared from the presidential ad mix and, as ever more risk-averse nominees have steered clear of them, from our leadership calculus.

We’ve talked nonstop about gun policy since the Sandy Hook tragedy. Yet just five weeks before the shooting, we came within 3.7 percentage points of electing a president whose position on guns was never advertised and thus basically unknown.

Gov. Mitt Romney wasn’t the only presidential nominee who avoided advertising about gun policy in 2012. The last Democratic nominee to air a TV ad about guns was a shotgun-toting Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

Barack Obama also was elected president not once but twice without airing a single English-language ad mentioning his position on immigration. In 2012, his Spanish-language immigration ads accounted for less than one—0.57, to be exact—percent of the 550,000+ broadcast TV spot occurrences aired by his campaign. In 2008, his Spanish-language ads on immigration accounted for 0.25 percent of his 430,000+ general election spot count.

Twenty-first-century America has siloed our national conversations about public policy. During our presidential races, we spend the ever-longer general election campaigns advertising almost exclusively about the economy or national security. Discussion of social policy has basically been relegated to odd-numbered years, primaries, and niche advertising during a general. The more sophisticated—and stereotypical—voter-targeting methods become, the more narrowly social issues are raised, when they are raised at all.

Of course, just because a nominee doesn’t advertise about an issue doesn’t mean he isn’t talking about it on the trail or in debates. But not advertising about it is a fair sign of not wanting to talk about it.

Even after mass shootings in two battleground states within two weeks’ time in 2012, neither nominee aired a TV ad about guns. The one exception: a Romney ad that aired in Spanish accusing Obama of letting cartels—i.e., not Americans but Mexicans—acquire guns through the Fast and Furious program.

Like Obama, nominee Romney avoided English-language advertising about immigration. His one immigration ad in Spanish accounted for 0.27 percent of his 216,000+ broadcast TV spot occurrences aired during the general election.

If you’re Latino, you might be starting to feel pretty special by now—or pretty condescended to. At least 2008 GOP standard-bearer John McCain aired his immigration ads in English (0.38 percent of his 144,000+ general election spot count).

Nominating justices to the US Supreme Court is one of the most consequential decisions a president makes, as well as a shorthand means of getting at social issues. Yet between the last four non-incumbent presidential nominees—that’s Kerry, Obama, McCain, and Romney—only a single ad mentioning the Court ever aired: by Obama in 2008 (0.14 percent).

As president in 2012, Obama’s focus on Romney’s position on abortion drove the 2.2 percent of his spot count that were ads mentioning the Court. One ad in Spanish knocked Romney for opposing the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, but the others focused on abortion. Many were tailored to individual states, charging that as president, Romney would overturn Roe v. Wade.

As a wedge issue, abortion reigns “supreme”—the only issue raised here to consistently account for even just one percent of a presidential nominee’s broadcast TV spot count in the last three elections: Bush in 2004 (1.2 percent; nominee Kerry aired no TV ads about abortion); Obama in 2008 (1.2 percent; McCain aired none); and both nominees in 2012. Romney’s sole TV ad defending his views on abortion accounted for 1.7 percent of his general election spot count—and was no match for Obama’s whopping 7.9 percent.

On the campaign trail, presidential nominees command hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and other forms of communication that enable them to at least try to dictate which issues they confront and which issues they can overlook.  

But the past six months have proved that politicians ignore social trends at their professional peril, at least at the cost of looking seriously out of touch. Siloing discussion of immigration to their presidential primaries cost Republicans real ground among Latinos and business. By not folding guns into his campaign stump speech after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Oak Creek, WI, Obama arguably lost an opportunity to amass more capital on the issue. You could argue that it might have cost him votes in key states, and thus maybe even the election, except that the NRA was advertising against him in those states, anyway.

If gay marriage hadn’t been considered taboo in 2008 and 2012 after Karl Rove used it in ballot initiatives to boost conservative turnout in 2004, maybe lawmakers wouldn’t have been so caught off-guard by its widespread acceptance in 2013.

So, will 2016 be the year when debate over social issues is finally back in vogue beyond March or April? We’ll see to what degree the fringe factor is self-fulfilling—whether politicians can continue to skirt and stereotype their way through social issues and still win, or whether they eventually will marginalize themselves in the process.

CMAG’s Mitchell West and Andrew Fitzgerald contributed to this article.