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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, September 30, 2014

A considerable subset of political junkies also follow football. But for those who don't, we at CMAG use the term "gaining separation" to describe how one advertiser or one side in the air war builds up an advantage over another advertiser or the other side. Separation can be achieved among particular audiences through strategic ad placement. It also can be gained on particular messages in ads through volume.

I created a list of 12 issues that are being used either widely or highly selectively in 2014 Senate and House advertising. The 12 issues are, in no special order: 1) jobs/unemployment, 2) budget/government spending, 3) anti-Obamacare, 4) energy/environment, 5) taxes, 6) veterans' care, 7) Medicare, 8) Social Security, 9) oil, 10) equal pay, 11) abortion, and 12) international affairs, which is our tag for ads mentioning terrorism along with other international references. To be clear, this isn't an all-inclusive list--other issues such as education and border security are getting either significant or selective play.

CMAG's Harley Ellenberger then graphed the advantage one party or the other has built up on each of the 12 issues according to their percentage of the total number of broadcast TV ad occurrences (i.e., spots) for that issue.

For example, of the nearly 126,000 general election spots aired in Senate races that have mentioned jobs, the two parties are at parity with each accounting for 50% of the airings. In House races, this is also nearly the case, with Democrats accounting for 53% of all 30,000+ general election spots mentioning jobs, and Republicans 47%.

But on criticism of the Affordable Care Act, it's nearly all Republicans in both Senate and House races (though not all-just ask Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware whose latest ad in his secure re-election bid knocks the ACA). Ditto on abortion for Democrats.

The bottom line: We've known intuitively that Republicans see their path to a new Senate majority consisting of just a couple of nationalized stepping stones: criticism of President Obama, first and foremost, but on the issues, criticism of the Affordable Care Act as a symbol of government overreach and overspending, and now, criticism of Democrats as being weak on fighting terror. But Harley's graphics bear this out quite starkly in that these are the only issues on which Republicans have built an advantage.

In House general election advertising, the degree to which Republicans have put their eggs in the anti-Obamacare basket is even more apparent in that it's the only issue on which they have any spot-count advantage at all.

Likewise, we've also known intuitively that Democrats see their path to a retained Senate majority and status quo in the House consisting of numerous localized or demographically targeted stepping stones: equal pay and abortion advertising to win women, Social Security and Medicare to win seniors, etc. They've also built an edge on taxes with their old saw of Republicans wanting to give tax breaks to corporations and millionaires while regular folks pay more.

Note that these graphics measure volume, not recent intensity. Even so, they provide some helpful perspective on that age-old question we all try to answer right around this point before Election Day: what both Republicans and Democrats have wanted to make this election about.