One of the reasons so much political advertising looks and sounds so similar is because the issues don’t change that much from cycle to cycle. In federal elections, issues like education, immigration, healthcare and the economy come up cycle after cycle going back to at least 2000. That’s when the Wesleyan Media Project started its research into campaign advertising.
But this cycle was different. Ad makers, particularly those on the left, were tasked with crafting spots on the issue of abortion to take front and center.
On Democratic campaigns for governor, Senate and the House last cycle, abortion was the top issue in their TV advertising, according to the Wesleyan researchers. The other newcomer to the 2022 issue matrix was inflation, which hadn’t been a concern for American voters in more than two decades.
“Both of those issues are not ones that appear in high volumes in prior election cycles,” Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, told C&E. “Abortion, specifically, hadn’t been a focus of either party before.”
Another finding released this week from the WMP: Democrats far outspent Republicans on digital during the midterms. In Senate campaigns, for instance, the top Republican spender on digital measured by WMP, which tracked ads on Meta’s and Alphabet’s platforms, was Sen. John Kennedy in Louisiana, who’s closest challenger Democrat Gary Chambers took only 17.7 percent of the vote.
Still, Kennedy dropped $2,978,743 on digital last cycle. The only other Republican in the top-10 of digital spenders was Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who spent $2,720,003. That’s compared to $15,728,017 dropped by Sen. Raphael Warnock on his reelect.
“From everything that we can see, Democrats are dominating the advertising spending on [digital] that we can track — and probably outright,” said Fowler.
But when it came to Senate creative, nearly half of digital spending was committed to donation appeals — 49 percent of it being targeted out of state. To track the digital ad creative, the researchers at WMP used a supervised machine learning approach, which was based on their human researchers’ work with TV advertising, to help classify the cycle’s online ads. Still, it’s a daunting challenge.
“This is one of the most challenging things about doing what we do,” she said. “It only gets harder because there’s just more spending everywhere and more spending on varied platforms.
“We don’t know the content activity for which we don’t have access.”