KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— To get a flavor of the 2022 ad messages from both sides, we watched nearly 350 campaign ads that came out in the second half of September.
— Abortion dominates Democratic messaging, while Republicans are much less likely to mention it. Crime has become a huge focus for Republicans, with Democrats trying to inoculate themselves by featuring law enforcement officers in their ads.
— Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi are frequently cited in Republican attack ads, but other politicians make cameos in ads not directly related to their states/districts.
How the ads frame 2022
The next time you, dear reader, and your family decide to sit down for a movie night, just consider this:
A typical movie might be about 2 hours long. That’s 120 minutes. So in the time it takes you to watch, say, the first modern Spider-Man movie, (almost exactly 2 hours long), you all could instead watch — get this — 240 separate 30-second political ads!
Sounds appealing, right?
OK, guess not. But because we want our readers to be on top of what’s going on in the campaigns, and because we are curious about what the various campaigns and outside groups are actually saying down the stretch of this year’s contests, we decided to take the plunge and watch a couple of weeks’ worth of campaign ads.
Just as a caveat before we begin: The actual efficacy of campaign ads has long been debated, and we are not really trying to address that debate today. Ads do represent the major way that candidates and outside groups end up communicating with the public — meaning that they are one of the few aspects of a campaign that the candidate or group can actually control. So what they choose to focus on seems worth analyzing, even if it’s hard to measure how effective the ads actually are.
For this article, we reviewed about 335 Senate, House, and gubernatorial ads released in the second half of September.
We primarily used the compilation of ads that appears at the end of Daily Kos Elections’s Morning Digest newsletter — the liberal site includes a list of ads from both sides in every issue. There were slightly more ads from Republican sources than Democratic ones, although the totals were fairly even — about 175 were from Republican candidates or outside groups, while about 160 were from Democratic candidates or their allies.
Nearly every ad was 30 seconds long, the standard length of a television ad. That amounts to about 2 hours and 45 minutes of ads, although it of course takes longer to actually watch all the ads, take notes on them, click through links, etc.
We have 5 takeaways from our campaign ad binge:
1. Abortion dominates Democratic advertising
NBC News recently reported numbers from the ad tracking firm AdImpact. It found that in the first half of September, abortion was the leading topic among all political ads: That firm found that 90 of 448 ads (20%) mentioned abortion, and that “Democrats overwhelmingly ran more ads about abortion than Republicans.” We didn’t keep our own overall tallies, but that was clearly still true in the second half of the month in the ads we viewed.
Democratic abortion ads often used a nationalizing message, arguing that a Republican target supported or would support a national ban on abortion and that they opposed exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother, often featuring images of women in distress. A few used images of questionnaires filled out by Republican candidates in which those candidates indicated they supported restricting abortion — here’s one from a group backed by the Democratic Governors Association, attacking former Gov. Paul LePage (R), for instance.
In one race, IA-3, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee features Republican state Sen. Zach Nunn raising his hand in response to a question asking whether he supported an abortion ban without exceptions. Nunn recently released a straight-to-camera response, arguing that his opponent, Rep. Cindy Axne (D, IA-3), supports too few restrictions on abortion, and he otherwise tried to put a much softer edge on his own position. To the extent that Republicans have run ads on abortion, Nunn’s response represents an example as to how they’ve tried to do it.
(If you’re looking for some additional context/fact-checking about the abortion back and forth in this particular race, KCCI in Des Moines has done helpful stories on both messages.)
A couple of days ago, Politico headlined a story “Democrats stake their House majority on abortion.” That certainly is communicated loud and clear in watching Democratic ads.
2. Checks and balances
A prominent feature of Republican messaging is simply arguing that Democrats are much too in lockstep with their unpopular national leaders. The most common formulation we noticed was Republicans using President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as a way of tying Democrats to their national party brand. That included the frequent notation that a certain Democrat had voted 100% of the time (or somewhere in the 90s) with either Pelosi, Biden, or both.
This is a pretty common midterm tactic, and it squares with how midterms often work, with the public taking the opportunity to put more constraints on the party in power. Republican ads often don’t explicitly mention this check and balance argument — even though it is clearly implied — but a few did: For instance, a National Republican Senatorial Committee ad against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) argues that “Georgia needs some balance in Washington.”
These kinds of ads often mentioned what Republicans describe as reckless Democratic spending that contributes to the inflation problem, commonly accompanied by that most familiar attack ad image — distraught people looking at bills.
3. Tough-on-crime messaging predominates
Crime has become a major focus for Republicans, and Democrats are trying to inoculate themselves on Republican crime messaging by championing their own support for law enforcement, often by featuring people who work in law enforcement. A good example is this ad, from state Assemblyman Adam Gray (D) running in the open CA-13; Gray features Republican county sheriffs who describe how Gray helped them fight crime.
The GOP ads often suggest that a Democrat supports “defunding the police,” a politically unhelpful (for Democrats) slogan that emerged from some corners on the left during the summer of 2020, when the nation faced a reckoning over law enforcement excesses, as best demonstrated by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Republicans have also tied in some crime-based messaging into broader arguments about what they argue is wasteful Democratic spending — such as the argument that covid relief checks went to convicted criminals, seen here in an attack ad by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) against Rep. Val Demings (D, FL-10).
Just like Democrats clearly feel comfortable being on the offensive on abortion, Republicans clearly feel comfortable being on the offensive about crime — although Democrats seem to be engaging on crime/law enforcement more than Republicans are on abortion.
To the extent that the political environment is improving for Republicans, it’s shown up in a couple of Senate races: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Republicans are hammering the crime issue in both states, using Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’s (D) own statements discussing “defunding the police” against him, like in this ad from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). While we have always seen Johnson as a small favorite in this race — in part because we figured these attacks would be coming on Barnes — it’s possible that the messaging has helped move the polls from showing a small Barnes lead to a small Johnson advantage. (Bill Scher of Washington Monthly has a good rundown of Barnes’s challenges on the crime issue and how other Black candidates have responded to attacks.)
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) still leads television doctor Mehmet Oz (R) — we are not aware of a single poll that has shown Oz leading — but by a smaller margin than he did before. Republicans have attacked Fetterman over what they describe as Fetterman’s overly lenient approach to his role on the state’s board of pardons: A recent Oz ad mentions it amid other attacks. Daniel Marans of the Huffington Post notes a Fetterman response ad (featuring a county sheriff) as well as other angles Republicans have used on this topic against Fetterman.
If Johnson and Oz end up winning, these kinds of ads will be cited as being important to their victories.
Additionally, some recently-passed criminal justice changes are being used in ads in specific places. For instance, some Republican ads in New York races criticize the state’s decision to end cash bail for those accused of lower-level offenses, which was passed in 2019. Here’s an example from Congressional Leadership Fund — a big outside Republican group associated with House GOP leadership — going after attorney Josh Riley (D), who is running in the new NY-19 against Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro (R), who lost a close special election in the old version of NY-19 in August.
A couple of summers ago, it seemed like the political pendulum was swinging more toward greater skepticism of law enforcement or, at least, toward criminal justice reform efforts; it’s pretty clear that the pendulum has swung back the other way, with Republicans arguing that Democrats are too soft on crime — and Democrats generally responding by arguing that they are not and touting their own efforts to support law enforcement. That’s not meant as an endorsement of any particular stance — it’s just an observation from these ads.
4. Guest stars
National political figures sometimes appear in ads as a way to nationalize races. We already mentioned Biden and Pelosi. Some other Democrats appeared from time to time in Republican attack ads – progressive lightning rod Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY-14) was used in some ads, sometimes noted just by her 3 initials: AOC.
We couldn’t help but be reminded of how Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was close to Franklin D. Roosevelt when the latter was president, went to great lengths to try to get his own 3-letter initial, LBJ (just like FDR), to stick. We suspect LBJ would be befuddled and jealous that a second-term House member is already so recognizable just by a 3-letter initial, whatever the circumstances.
Speaking of 3-letter initials, some refer to far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14) as just “MTG,” and she has appeared in a handful of Democratic ads, either by name or just by image. One attack ad from state Sen. Wiley Nickel (D) against former college football player Bo Hines (R) in the competitive NC-13 open seat names Greene along with outgoing Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R, NC-11) to attack Hines — a young, political newcomer who Nickel surely hopes voters compare to the erratic Cawthorn, who lost a primary earlier this year as he sought a second term.
Scattered ads have also mentioned other House members. Congressional Leadership Fund ran an attack ad against Navy veteran Chris Deluzio (D) in the Pittsburgh-area PA-17 that associated him with state House Rep. Summer Lee, a far-left Democrat running in the neighboring PA-12, a more Democratic district. An ad from Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) starts with her watching a clip of another far-left Democrat, Rep. Cori Bush (D, MO-1) from St. Louis. Some Democrats argued that the clip is made to trick viewers into thinking it’s Deidre DeJear, Reynolds’s Democratic challenger who is also Black. It’s indeed impossible not to notice that both of these Democrats who appear in races where they are not candidates — Lee and Bush — are Black, leading to some questions about exactly why they are included in these ads and whether race has something to do with it. Although both also are included talking about the “defund the police” issue, which Republicans are trying to exploit wherever they can and through whatever connections they can assert.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appears in a handful of ads, generally as a way for a Democrat to note the stakes of the election. In Washington, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has shown McConnell in a split screen with veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley (R), perhaps reminding voters in a Democratic state that even if they find Smiley appealing, she ultimately would back a conservative Republican, McConnell, as majority leader in the Senate.
There are also some figures who just show up in certain states: Republicans sometimes include Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) in their congressional attack ads in that state; Democrats in Kansas races bring up former Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who left office woefully unpopular; Democrats in Michigan have tied GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon to former Trump-era Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family supported Dixon on her successful path to the Republican nomination.
Donald Trump made an appearance here and there, or at least the memory of him did; House Majority PAC, the Democratic equivalent of CLF, used a picture of former gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung (R) wearing a Trump hat at the former president’s inauguration in the open RI-2 race (Democrats used the same image to attack Fung in the 2018 gubernatorial election).
5. Student loan forgiveness, largely forgotten
President Biden’s attempt to forgive $10,000 worth of college loan debt for certain borrowers does not appear to be a major focus of advertising. In thinking back on the ads, we hardly recall hearing about it at all — but when one watches hundreds of ads over the course of a few days, it may be that a mention here or there slipped through the cracks. The bottom line is that Biden’s decision does not appear as though it has become a significant part of this campaign, at least through advertising, in either a positive or negative way.
We did notice that Senate Leadership Fund (a major Republican outside group linked to Mitch McConnell) released an ad this week — so past our second half of September time horizon — attacking North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Cheri Beasley over Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Beasley recently put out an ad with an attack that seemed unique to her race — accusing her opponent, Rep. Ted Budd (R, NC-13), of not supporting apprenticeship programs for those who don’t go to college.
But overall, this issue does not seem to be one that is showing up much in paid media, or at least in what we’ve seen.
Broadly speaking, watching a bunch of political ads from both sides means seeing a lot of the same things over and over again, just in different packages. Although there are plenty of specific topics that come up in ads that we didn’t really hit on above, such as immigration; personal scandal; Social Security and Medicare; and much more.
Much of the Democratic advertising attacking former NFL star Herschel Walker (R) in the Georgia Senate race has questioned his fitness for office, focusing on controversies from both his personal life and businesses. The revelations of the past couple of days, in which the Daily Beast reported that the anti-abortion Walker paid for an abortion for a girlfriend, which was followed by some very loud public criticism by one of Walker’s sons against his father, guarantees that those kinds of attacks will continue. We’re curious to see if this changes the trajectory of what has been a very close race that could head to a runoff.
In almost all instances, ads either extol the virtues of a single candidate or attack a single candidate, although there are a few exceptions. The highly-competitive Oregon gubernatorial race, where there are 3 credible candidates, has seen some ads that attack 2 of the candidates at once — here is one from former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) and another from former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat-turned-independent.
There are 3 competitive House races in the pricey Las Vegas market — the DCCC produced an attack ad there that hits all 3 Republican candidates together. But such exceptions are rare.
We’d say readers should look into it more — although if you’re in a competitive state or district, chances are you’ve seen plenty already.