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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, August 12, 2014

Political advertising may not make anyone’s list of key economic indicators, but 2014 campaign commercials offer another gauge of an improving economy.

Whereas jobs and unemployment was the most-mentioned specific economic issue at the top of the ballot in 2012, it has been supplanted by government spending in key 2014 Senate races.

Another mark of an improving economy between 2012 advertising and now: Wall Street is catching a break.

In 2012, according to our Andrew Fitzgerald, CMAG tracked 282,000 airings of political ads that mentioned the Street or any of the more politically unpopular policies and actors associated with the financial services industry: “bailouts”/TARP, corporate tax breaks, “big banks,” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Even after subtracting 79,000 airings in the presidential race, the remaining 203,000 across all elections, from Congress and governor on down to mayor, is still exponentially more than the 15,000 CMAG has tracked so far this year.

Barring another bank meltdown of some sort, the 2012 number seems unlikely to be matched by Election Day, though the coming fall ad tsunami may bring a surge. The percolating tax inversion debate in particular may inspire an uptick in ads denouncing US companies trying to avoid paying US taxes, especially with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the case as she stumps for fellow Democrats.

But for now, only 25 races around the country this year have seen any such ads. Of those races to have seen them recently, i.e., since June, most are US Senate races and most of the advertisers have been Democrats.

To make a real race out of an uphill climb in West Virginia, nominee Natalie Tennant turned out the lights at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in her ad, but Senate Majority PAC wagged its finger at the Street: “The Wall Street banks. We’ve seen how they’ve treated our local economy (cue B-roll of locked-up businesses and a foreclosed home)... and all while cutting taxes for the wealthiest, like the Wall Street banks.”

In tornado-battered Arkansas, two Democratic groups—including SMP, again—put Republican nominee Tom Cotton and “Wall Street-based underwriters” on the opposite side of Arkansas in disaster relief. In Iowa against GOP nominee Joni Ernst, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee revived the old 2006 chestnut that privatizing Social Security could be “a windfall for Wall Street.”

In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D) invoked the financial crisis to promote how he took on Wall Street to stop credit rating agencies from giving “triple-A ratings to financial products that were junk… Wall Street wasn’t happy about that, but I don’t work for them.” In Hawaii, where the most tired political clichés get a second lease on life, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s ad in her primary challenge to incumbent Brian Schatz notes she “focused on Main Street, not Wall Street.” And in Oregon, Sen. Jeff Merkley touted that he took on “the big banks” to make college more affordable.

And just this week, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for governor of Massachusetts, state attorney general Martha Coakley, promotes in her new ad how she took “on the big banks and Wall Street for defrauding homeowners and destroying dreams.”

On the Republican side, the issue has been raised recently—alongside many others—by Senate candidates Jack Kingston and Joe Carr in GOP Senate primaries in Georgia and Tennessee, respectively. Both accused their opponents of supporting the bank bailout, and both lost.

The financial services industry was a regular punching bag for political advertisers even before the crisis. Like the glittering towers and massive tickers used in Democratic TV ads to make viewers feel overpowered, the financial crisis crystallized public sentiment against banks, while bailouts have become part of the Republican narrative against out-of-control government spending.

Political advertisers have practical reasons for letting up on some of their most generous donors. But since they’re hardly above whacking Wall Street if they perceive it as a way to win, the drop-off suggests that at least for now, they don’t see it that way.