I realize this makes me sound dorkier than I already am, but here it goes: I like watching campaign ads. Not for their artistic flair or that dulcet tones of that voice-over guy. I like them because they tell us how candidates and campaigns see the political environment and how they plan to navigate it.
Thanks to the work of the diligent Cook Political Report summer interns, Jacob Link and Torie Bolger, and data from CMAG Kantar Media, we have mapped out the messages the candidates and campaigns have been delivering to voters between January and July of this year.
Almost all of these ads ran during the primary season, which means the candidates and groups were directing their messaging at partisans. The reason we are highlighting them now, at the tail-end of the primary season, is so that we can can compare the volume — and type — of ads run during primary season with those that run during general election time.
First, let’s start with the data. Jacob and Torie (with the help from CMAG/Kantar Media), categorized each ad run for a House or Senate candidate between January 1 and July 31 by both topic and partisanship. Since many ads mentioned multiple topics, one ad could be counted in multiple categories. For example, a Republican ad that mentions that a candidate’s commitment to “supporting President Trump” and building the wall, would be categorized as both immigration and pro-Trump.
As such, here is how to read the category of immigration: between January and July of 2018, 79,303 ads aired that mentioned immigration. Of those ads, 65,296 were sponsored by Republican candidates or Republican-leaning groups.
As you can see, Democrats are talking overwhelmingly about healthcare (with a healthy dose of anti-Trump), while Republicans are more evenly distributed between pro-Trump, taxes, and immigration.
(Click on the chart below to view larger version)
That Democrats emphasized health care and Republicans immigration/taxes makes sense — it’s what interests and motivates their partisans the most. For example, the July NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 42 percent of Democrats saw health care as the "most important factor" in the election this year. Meanwhile, almost half (47 percent) of Republicans chose economy/jobs as their "most important" factor. The next most important issue for Republicans was immigration at 31 percent.
So, what should we expect these categories to look like this fall?
First, we should expect to see Democrats continue to hammer on health care. Almost every House candidate we have met this year has mentioned the issue — specifically the House vote to repeal Obamacare — as "a" or "the" prime motivation for running. Moreover, independents also rate the issue of health care highly. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a third of independents rated health care as a top issue, just behind the economy and jobs at 40 percent. Will Republicans try to box-in Democratic candidates as too liberal (citing their support for “Medicare for all” or “single-payer” as too expensive and too risky)? Or, will they avoid playing on turf where Democrats have a distinct advantage?
Also expect anti-Pelosi ad numbers to skyrocket. We’ve already seen this playbook rolled out in special elections. Align a Democrat with Pelosi, the GOP theory goes, and you send a clear signal to swing and soft Republicans that the candidate is a secret (or not-so-secret) liberal.
I am also curious to see how both sides will message on the tax law passed last fall. Taxes was the second-most mentioned topic of GOP-sponsored ads, just slightly behind pro-Trump and slightly ahead of immigration. But, Democrats didn’t talk as much about taxes as they did a host of other issues. In fact, the only issue they talked about less than taxes was immigration and guns.
So, what about immigration? Many of the ads run during the primaries featured GOP candidates boasting of their support for "the wall" This fall, we can expect to see Republicans go on the offense on immigration, labeling their Democratic candidates as too soft on "security" or "MS-13" or supportive of abolishing ICE. But, will Democrats go on the offense as well? Will we see ads sponsored by candidates that criticize the family separation? Or will Democrats shy away from playing on what has traditionally been GOP territory?
I am also curious to see if the pro-Trump ads continue to outpace the anti-Trump ones now that the primary season has ended. I expect we’ll see GOP candidates in Trump country (i.e., Senate contests in West Virginia or North Dakota), continue to align themselves with the POTUS. Not so much for other Republicans in purple states/CDs.
While, it’s impossible to accurately categorize every single ad run by federal candidates, this is a good, broad look at the kinds of messages being delivered to voters. No matter what candidates/campaigns/strategists spin today, what they put on TV this fall tells us just which issues and messages they think are going to move voters.