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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, October 21, 2014

Here are the top 15 most-mentioned issues and issue positions, as coded by CMAG, in the air war for control of the Senate last week—three weeks out from Election Day. While the messages counted among the ranks of the top 15 did not change from Week Four to Week Three, some interesting shifts in emphasis occurred, including Democrats doubling down on their argument that Republicans back tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and Republicans widening their advantage on terrorism.

Three Weeks Out: Oct. 13-19

Four Weeks Out: Oct. 6-12

On some other issues, the air war remained status quo. Despite the fact that it seems every new Democratic ad I see mentions abortion or contraception (and that’s just a slight exaggeration), the total number of spots referencing social issues overall remained the same, as did the size of Democrats’ advantage.

This graphic by CMAG’s Harley Ellenberger includes two types of information: 1) the numbers in the left-hand column represent the total number of broadcast TV ad occurrences—i.e., individual airings of ads—devoted to that message for the week, while 2) the pair of red and blue bubbles indicates the percentage of that total number of occurrences sponsored by each side. The graphic covers all broadcast TV advertising in Senate races from October 13-19. The previous week’s graphic is included below it for comparison purposes.

We’ve arranged the 15 issues and issue positions not by total spot count for the week, but by the size of the spot-count advantage one party held on that particular message during the week, from the GOP shutout on criticism of the Affordable Care Act to Democrats’ near-equal eclipse of Republicans on education.

One immediately obvious shift from the prior week: whereas Week Four saw six issues on which Democrats and Republicans were at near-parity or parity (healthcare, international affairs, taxes, veterans’ care, jobs and Social Security), in Week Three, the two sides were close on just three issues (healthcare again, but also energy/environment and Medicare).

Healthcare (all mentions, including of “Obamacare,” Medicare, women’s health, and other healthcare references) remained the #1 issue for the second week in a row. But after Republicans accounted for 57% of all healthcare-related spots in Week Four, they dropped to 47% of all such spots in Week Three, with Democrats sponsoring a majority of the spots at 53%. This seems primarily attributable to Republicans advertising less about Medicare, dropping from 63% of all Medicare-specific spots in Week Four to just 41% of them last week.

Jobs remained the #2 issue, but as with healthcare, the GOP backed off somewhat: after accounting for 47% of all jobs-related spots the prior week, they accounted for 37% of jobs spots last week.

At #5 during Week Four with the two sides at parity, taxes rose to #3 last week with Democrats amassing a considerable lead on the issue, accounting for 76% of related spots due to heavy investment in their attack on Republicans for allegedly supporting tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.

Energy and the environment rose from #6 to #4 in total spots. A solid GOP majority of 66% of all energy/environment spots during Week Four became a much narrower majority of 53% in Week Three, possibly due to stepped up advertising by pro-environment groups.

The number of anti-Obamacare spots held steady but due to other shifts, the message dropped from #4 to #5.

So where did Democrats back off? A drop in the number of total spots devoted to the budget/government spending, causing the issue to fall from #3 to #7, was mainly due to a drop in Democratic investment in the message.

And where did Republicans increase their advantage? Only on one issue—one obvious issue. Greater Republican investment in spots about terrorism and less Democratic pushback widened the GOP’s lead from 56% to Democrats’ 44% the prior week, to 78% to Democrats’ 22% last week. The issue rose slightly in total spot count from #13 to #12.

One last but important housekeeping note: while spots are a more apples-to-apples way of looking at TV advertising across media markets of varying expense, they’re not a perfect metric, either. One 30-second spot in Kansas City during Game One tonight could reach more voters than 20 spots aired during your typical Tuesday-night programming.