As the presidential primary heats up, more candidates are going up on the airwaves to convince voters to support their presidential bid. Some are trying to pick up momentum by winning an early primary state, while others are just trying to qualify for the next round of debates. In both cases, we see candidates “putting their money where their mouths are” and prioritizing certain issues in paid advertisements.
One way to examine candidate messaging is by sheer word count, literally what topics are the candidates are talking about the most? And the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Trump:
This view measures the number of times words have been spoken in presidential primary ads in Iowa, and “Trump” has been uttered 25 more times than “message,” the second most spoken word. For reference, the frequency gap between the second and third most spoken words is only seven. The “Trump” number is inflated by the number of Steyer’s ads, which are very focused on Trump and impeachment. However, Harris and Delaney have also explicitly mentioned the President in their ads.
This focus on the President so early in the primary may come as a surprise since the Democrats found success in 2018 with disciplined messaging and their scripted focus on healthcare. To this point, only John Delaney has aired an ad exclusively focused on healthcare during the presidential primary. This marks a stark contrast from the 2018 data. An examination of the subject of DCCC ads in 2018 find that “conditions” “insurance” and “pre-existing” are three of the 10 most used words in paid advertisements.
Rather than rallying around healthcare as the most important issue with which to capture primary voters, several “lanes” have developed. John Delaney, who has been airing ads for the longest amount of time, has taken a tone similar to his debate rehetoric, attempting to portray himself as a moderate voice of reason and “Focusing on the Future.” The Jay Inslee-supporting Act Now on Climate has focused on mitigating the effects of climate change as its “Top Priority.” Tom Steyer, since his entrance to the race, has lapped the field in spending, running just under $6M worth of ads. (The next biggest spender is at only $500k.) His ads have all directly targeted the President, explicitly saying “I can go head-to-head with the President,” and attacking the Democratic-majority House for not seriously taking up articles of impeachment and failing to implement more extensive oversight.
Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris are the two most recent candidates to go up on air and are polling the highest of anyone yet on air in Iowa. Harris’ first ad is a biographical spot called “3am Agenda” which highlights the difficulties her mother faced in raising her and her sister.and the ad also highlights three things Harris plans do from the beginning of her presidency. These three things are: the largest middle class tax cut in a generation, Medicare for All, and fining companies that do not pay women equally. Gillibrand’s “Imagine” communicates an aspirational message focused on morals and values rather than specific policy proposals.
As the primary continues and we see more candidates advertise, we will see how the messaging trends unfold. However, the early signs are that candidates are doing their best to own a signature issue, and so far no one has staked a sole claim on healthcare. However, given their focus on healthcare during the debates, we will likely see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren focused on the issue when they go up on air. One trend to watch will be whether vague “Medicare for All” proposals are touted, or if candidates will attempt to differentiate themselves by offering specific policy proposals. It is difficult to lay out detailed, specific policy in :30s spots, but the reward could be setting a narrative about healthcare to wich other candidates will be forced to respond.