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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, September 23, 2014

The final sprint to Election Day can make you forget everything that came before it. And with the 2014 air war having engaged last fall, that puts a year’s worth of advertising at risk of being forgotten. So before that onslaught of GOP ads hits Democrats on terrorism (and, just sayin’, it hasn’t yet) or things otherwise start looking smaller in the rear-view mirror, let’s review the big messaging trends that got us to this point. Who knows? Some or all of them might just hang in the rest of the way.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s Cook Political Report subscriber briefing, here’s your chance to play some catch-up, including with two slides by CMAG’s Harley Ellenberger. A quick methodological note: CMAG codes broadcast ads for several dozen specific messages, many of which are actual issues (e.g., Medicare) but some of which are tactical (e.g., “call to action” when an ad urges the viewer to call a member’s office, or “anti-Obama” for any ad that contains criticism of the President). We also code for broad topics (e.g., “energy/environment”) and for specific sub-topics within those buckets (e.g., oil or coal).

“Washington is broken.” Rare is the campaign ad these days that doesn’t dump on Washington or the elected officials who serve there. This theme has become so ubiquitous, CMAG doesn’t even risk the carpal tunnel syndrome that would be involved in punching the keys to track it. One notable undercurrent here, though: incumbents are getting attacked for allegedly growing so used to the perks of office—private jets and ritzy travel, subsidized healthcare—that they no longer care about their constituents. Which may have something to do with that percentage of voters who are willing to re-elect their own lawmakers being, as HuffPollster’s Mark Blumenthal describes it, “lower than usual.”

Ads as an economic indicator. Even if I consumed no news and did nothing but watch political ads all day, I’d know the economy has improved. First, while jobs remains a top issue in congressional race advertising, budget/government spending is giving jobs a run for its money. In general election advertising in US Senate races, jobs was the #3 message as of September 12, budget/government spending #7. In general election advertising in US House races, budget/government spending was the #1 message, jobs #6. (CMAG ranks message use by the total numbers of individual airings of ads about each message.)

And second, while this is a bad cycle in advertising for billionaires and for corporations seeking tax loopholes, it’s been better for Wall Street. Political ads bashing Wall Street were almost as ever-present in 2012 as ads bashing Washington are today. But while we continue to see them, they’re not nearly as prevalent as they were.

The Affordable Care Act. Much has been made about the “fading” of the ACA in Republican advertising. As of September 12, anti-“Obamacare” still ranked #5 in both Senate and House ad messaging, though it may be on its way down. After spending 2010 and 2012 as a far-off concept, the ACA post-implementation certainly has had a more eventful life in 2014 advertising. Anti-Obamacare advertising can be viewed in three stages:

Stage 1: Heavy anti-Democratic advertising during enrollment. The intensity with which Americans for Prosperity lambasted vulnerable Democrats last fall and spring set the expectation that Republicans would make Obamacare Topic A for the duration of the cycle. Overlooked was the fact that the AFP onslaught coincided with the enrollment window and that the ads served a dual purpose: softening up Democratic incumbents and drawing their ad dollars onto the air in defense—but also tamping down public opinion about the law to undermine enrollment.

Stage 2: Once the enrollment window closed, Obamacare became Republican-on-Republican fodder as candidates used it to try and out-conservative one another in primaries: I “despise” (per one candidate’s ad in the Nebraska US Senate primary) Obamacare more than my opponent does.

Stage 3: With primaries over, we’re now back to Republicans hammering Democrats, but the messaging is more diffuse. Some ads still call for repeal, but others blast higher premiums or the “lie of the year,” or accuse Democratic Senator X (or Y or Z) of casting “the deciding vote.” Meanwhile, among Democrats, ads in support of the law remain few and far between. Sen. Mark Pryor (AR) and Senate nominee Natalie Tennant (WV) had to wrap their support in stories of personal healthcare struggles. Other ads by Democrats use some combination of “needs fixing” and/or that insurers would otherwise be charging women more for healthcare or denying coverage for preexisting conditions. You almost need a spiritual advisor to determine that some of these Democratic ads are actually pro-ACA.

The energy surge. It stands to reason that energy/environment mentions would rank higher than usual on the list of go-to messages in 2014 advertising, given 1) the number of competitive races in energy states, including races where Democratic incumbents are trumpeting their efforts on behalf of oil and coal; 2) Democrats’ efforts to ties the Koch brothers to “Big Oil;” 3) the usual supporting role being played by environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters; and 4) the debut of new, multimillion-dollar super PAC NextGen Climate Action.

But it turns out that all these factors combined are likely driving energy/environment mentions to their highest count ever in congressional race advertising. We’ve already seen more spots in US Senate general elections alone (87,000 as of September 12) than we saw by this point in both Senate and House races in 2008 (56,000). If you add in 2014 House spots, we’ve nearly doubled the 2008 number (102,000). And with overall trends in advertising being what they are, with spot counts increasing over time, logic points to 2014 being the biggest cycle for energy/environment-related advertising, ever.

Veterans’ care. Few institutions in America command universal respect these days—but we continue to respect those who served. The VA scandal and the topic of veterans’ care is the only breaking news story to gain major traction in 2014 advertising, not because veterans are a big voting bloc, but because it gives advertisers a way to tap into a rare vein of sympathy to connect with voters. Veterans’ care is #11 in Senate general election ad messaging and #9 for the House.

Is it 2002 or 2006? That ISIS-inspired “surge” in Republican ads hitting Democrats for allegedly being weak on fighting terrorism has yet to materialize as of this writing. On top of the smattering of ads we saw before Congress voted last week, such as in the Kentucky and New Mexico Senate races, we’ve seen a second smattering in IA-03 (both an NRCC attack and Democratic pushback) and NY-24.

But let’s just say a surge does emerge. Meanwhile Democrats, especially vulnerable incumbents, have made herculean efforts to localize their races—except for the fact that they are increasingly turning to the old theme of Medicare and Social Security, including privatization (#9 and #13 in Senate ads, #8 and #13 in House ads, and both ascendant).

If both sides turn to old saws as their final arguments, the next six weeks are going to seem like driving in reverse. The issues we thought were fading in the rear-view mirror eight to 12 years ago are coming around again.

CMAG’s Andrew Fitzgerald contributed to this column.