The 2020 election cycle was marked by historic levels of spending and electoral surprises. There were plenty of House districts that were closely contested. But one of the biggest stories of the year were the 14 House districts that flipped blue in 2018 and back to red in 2020. The most important variable was likely the presence or absence of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. But it is worth an analysis of advertisement messaging in these tight races to see what may have resonated with voters.
One of these highly competitive districts was South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. Democrat Joe Cunningham flipped and won the district in 2018. However, Republican Nancy Mace flipped SC-01 back in 2020.
So what were some of the key messaging themes in 2020 that might have resonated with voters? We did an analysis of advertisement messaging by combing through the ad transcriptions and found some interesting data points.
Democrats in competitive districts were apparently unhappy that they were painted with the slogan “Defund the Police.” However, in the SC-01 race, there were only two broadcast ads that referenced the slogan, one from Nancy Mace and this one from Congressional Leadership Fund that aired 506 times. It is interesting that though that message took up a lot of the earned media space across the country, it was not a major part of the broader election narrative in SC-01.
There were two additional broadcast ads that did not use the term “Defund the Police,” but referenced the protests from the summer. Joe Cunningham aired one, and Nancy Mace aired :30s and :60s versions of this ad a combined 418 times. The imagery in Mace’s ad echoes ads from other Republican advertisers over the summer and fits with the “law and order” messaging that came out of the party. But again, Republicans aired 24 unique ads during the general election, and only two of them explicitly used the term “defund the police,” suggesting it wasn’t as much of a cudgel as might have been guessed.
Donald Trump was a major subject of political ads in 2020, but not so much in SC-01. In fact, the political figure who received outsized attention in the race was Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi was referenced far more than “defund the police” was. 14 unique ads were aired by Republican advertisers in the race for SC-01. They all tied Cunningham to Pelosi’s agenda. Nancy Mace aired four ads, Club for Growth aired two, Congressional Leadership Fund aired six, and the NRCC aired two. This ad from Nancy Mace aired 452 times.
Another message that seemed to be a Republican talking point nationally was socialism. By our own count, socialism or communism was referenced at least 58 times in the Republican National Convention. However, it was not a huge part of the first district’s race. In fact, each candidate only had one ad that mentioned socialism and neither gave it more than a quick mention. The Cunningham ad that did mention socialism, however, aired 761 times, and feels like Raphael Warnock’s viral fake attack ad.
Of all the hot-button, political talking points in South Carolina 01, it was the tried and true messaging of the GOP that received the most attention. There were 20 unique ads that mentioned the Economy and they aired a total of 8,299 times. Republican advertisers hammered on this message more than Democrats did with 14 ads compared to the Democrats’ six. Nancy Mace herself aired six ads about the economy, compared to Cunningham’s two. Her top ad aired 406 times.
What’s the takeaway? There are countless variables that influence the outcome of an election. But after an analysis of advertisement messaging, it appears Nancy Mace turned South Carolina’s first district red again by messaging most heavily on Nancy Pelosi and the economy, not protests or defund the police. Joe Cunningham’s ads largely focused on his accomplishments in Congress in the last term, but ultimately his message of “promises kept” didn’t do the job he needed it to. Whereas the saying used to that “all politics is local,” it should probably now be said that politics is definitely national, but with a local flavor.