February 4, 2021
Utah’s 4th congressional district has one of the most volatile histories of any modern congressional district. Since its creation in 2013, it has been represented by four different people, alternating between Democratic and Republican representatives every two to four years. That volatility led to it being one of the 14 races that went blue in 2018 and then back to red in 2020. It is it one of the only races to be in the top five closest races in both 2018 and 2020. We will dive into a messaging report of recent candidates for this highly sought after district.
Political Ad Messaging Analysis
First, the disclaimer: There are many factors that lead to wins at the ballot box. In 2018, for example, medical marijuana as well as Medicaid expansion were on the ballot in Utah, both of which probably turned out Democratic voters for McAdams. In 2020, Trump at the top of the ticket and likely had a large effect on turnout. Nine million more people voted in 2020 than in 2016. The economy, Covid, and party affiliation all likely had huge effects on how people voted, but messaging matters. We will take a look at some of the messaging similarities and differences between 2018 and 2020.
Messaging from Mia Love
Mia Love represented the district for four years, she was fairly conservative, but moderate in tone. When McAdams ran against her, he tried hard to show he was going to be more bipartisan than her. Love, in turn did her best to tie him to the Clintons and show that he raised taxes. Her most aired ad (below) featured a fake phone call from Bill Clinton to McAdams thanking him for all he had done for Hillary’s career. She also heavily featured Mitt Romney, who was also running in 2018, as well as her work in returning Josh Holt, a political prisoner in Venezuela, to the United States. Not surprisingly, in her top five ads, there was no mention of Trump.
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A Messaging Report on Ben McAdams
Ben McAdams, who had been the Salt Lake County Mayor prior to entering congress focused his messaging on bipartisanship, healthcare, and Mia Love’s alleged corruption. He featured past and current Republican State Lawmakers in his ads, talked about himself as an unconventional Democrat, he even said “I won’t always vote with Trump,” implying that many times he would vote with Trump. One of the biggest narratives from the race was that it got nasty and that’s in part due to the attack ads McAdams ran about Love’s record.
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In 2020, McAdams’ messaging went even further to the right, likely because of how conservative his opponent was. Healthcare went from one of his main messaging point to barely a blip in his ads and mostly only mentioned in regards to Covid. McAdams’ main messages in 2020 were on how fiscally responsible he was and how he was a family man. His most aired ad, again featured solely Republicans in the state as he tried hard to paint himself as bipartisan in ruby red Utah.
Burgess Owens, once a Super Bowl champion, came out of the gate trying his darndest to thwart McAdams’ attempts at messaging as bipartisan. Four of his five top ads were either contrast or attack ads, trying to show that McAdams acted bipartisan, but was actually very liberal. The other top five ad was a biopic, introducing himself to Utahns, talking about how he failed but the American Dream allowed him to come back. He barely touched on his own policy preferences, instead focusing on McAdams record and big ideas.
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The battle for UT-04 has been wild, and will likely continue to be waged in 2022, especially with Utah’s new bipartisan redistricting committee. But it’s very likely messaging will continue to be about bipartisanship, at least from the left, as well as traditional Republican values such as family and fiscal responsibility. In a state as Republican as Utah, it’s unlikely this district will ever become safely blue, but we will continue to talk about it as one of the most fiercely fought districts in the country in years to come.