Michael Bloomberg is setting records for television advertising spending in the 2020 presidential primaries and we expect more records in the general election. The last two cycles have seen Democrats out-advertise Republicans, but how many votes did it earn them? Erika Franklin Fowler and Michael Franz find that the 2018 cycle was still dominated by television advertising focused on health care, a big change from 2016’s personal attacks on Donald Trump. The go-to experts from the Wesleyan Media Project show we’re now seeing more advertising, more negativity, and more outside groups. They expect more of the same in 2020.

Studies:The Blue Wave” and “Political Advertising in the United States

Interviews: Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University; Michael Franz of Bowdoin College


Matt Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, television ads in American elections. For The Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are setting records for television advertising spending in the 2020 presidential primaries. And we’re gearing up for more record spending in the general election. The last two cycles have seen Democrats out advertise Republicans, but only sometimes reap the benefits.

Today, I talk to the experts at the Wesleyan Media Project, Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan and Mike Franz of Bowdoin. Their latest article, “The Blue Wave,” in PS finds that the 2018 cycle was still dominated by television advertising. They’re also coauthors with Travis Ridout of Political Advertising in the United States and the go-to sources monitoring the role of advertising in American political campaigns past and present. Franklin Fowler explains how the Wesleyan Media Project tracks TV and digital ad content.

Erika Franklin Fowler: The Wesleyan Media Project has been around now for a decade. And over the last decade we have always tracked television advertising from a company called Kantar/CMAG. We receive frequency files that tell us when, where and in which markets and on which programs advertising airs. And then we also get videos of the advertising itself, which our students across three institutions often analyze in real time. Since 2018, when the online platform libraries became available from Google and Facebook, we have also been incorporating online advertising in real time. We had some commercial vendors for that online activity before that, but obviously the platform libraries are much more comprehensive than any commercial vendor can provide, since they don’t have the full range of what is available on those sites. Since 2018, we’ve also been sorting through massive amounts of digital advertising data. We can do all television advertising with human coders, although we have ramped up in recent years our computational classification of that data.

So students basically watch all of our television advertising. And they answer a whole host of questions that talk about What is the tone of the ad? Is this an ad that promotes a candidate? Does it attack a candidate? Or does it discuss both candidates? That’s our operational definition of tone. We also track whether particular issues are referenced in the ad. We track references of national politicians, since especially in a midterm election, you expect the president and or the party leaders of the minority party to be referenced quite a bit. And then we track other things like music and emotions, and other sorts of things that we think would be of interest.

Matt Grossmann: Since they’ve been tracking it so long, they’ve noticed some longterm trends, increasing volume and negativity and more outside groups, says Franz.

Michael Franz: We definitely have seen clear trends. Some of the clearest trends have been, one. Generally an increase in volume, cycle to cycle, comparing races whether they be congressional to congressional races or presidency to presidency campaigns. Volumes tend to go up. 2016 was a little bit of a blip in the sense that Trump wasn’t as big of an advertiser as previous nominees. But congressional races to continue to see volume increases. That’s going to change very soon at some point, as campaigns shift predominantly into other ways of reaching voters, digital and streaming options. But that’s one trend. The other trend is not as stark, but certainly has been very consistent, if not increasing, probably somewhat stable, [inaudible 00:03:42] some cycles is the increasing negativity. We’ve seen more negative ads over these cycles than in the early time series. That’s for sure.

Not every cycle is more negative. 2016 was not more negative, or sorry, 2018, than 2016. But it’s not going down. And then probably the third trend that’s fairly straight forward to see in the data is the number of outside groups. Outside group advertising was a surprising level in, say, the election of 2000, when there was a fair amount of quote unquote issue advocacy by outside groups that led up to the McCain-Feingold reforms.

Michael Franz: But since Citizens United, the number of outside group ads, as I mentioned before, has jumped. And so whereas before Citizens United, we were in the five to 12% of all ads in federal races were sponsored by outside groups. Now we’re in the 30%, 32% range. And so that’s a huge difference. In terms of contributing to the scholarly community, it’s been a pleasure to be able to produce these data and allow scholars to answer all sorts of questions, whether they be volume related questions, content related questions about issues, facts related questions about the relationship between ad volume and election outcomes, sponsor related questions between outside groups and parties. As outside groups have continued to increase their ad buys, the political party committees have taken on a less of a share of the total volume. And that’s not as clear in congressional races as it is in presidential races, but that switch has been significant.

So there’s been a lot of questions that we’ve been able to look at and others have been able to look at with these data over the last 20 years.

Matt Grossmann: 2018 had a lot of ads, mostly policy ads from Democrats.

Michael Franz: In 2018, we saw a number of things that were somewhat different from previous cycles, and then a few things that looked a lot of the same. First, we saw a lot more political ads on TV in 2018 than we had in previous congressional elections. We had expected at some point to see a plateau and then a decline in the volume of ads on broadcast television. And 2018 was certainly not the case in that fact. In fact, the number of ads on TV were much higher than in 2016 congressional races, in 2014 in congressional races. And so there was a lot more volume. Democrats made up the larger percentage of that volume.

They had more ads on TV than Republicans did, especially if you include spending from parties and outside groups. The pro Democratic effort was just more aggressive than the pro Republican effort. There was a lot more focus on healthcare than in previous elections, especially from Democrats, who had otherwise not really spent a tremendous amount of time talking about the issue of healthcare in the aftermath of Obamacare’s passage. And there was slightly more dark money in 2018 than we had seen in previous elections. Dark money is money sponsored by outside groups that do not disclose their donors publicly, in comparison to say super PACs, which do disclose their donors. And so we saw slightly more dark money in 2014, or 2018 over 2014. But that was not a huge change. There was still less dark money than in, say, 2012. And so those were some changes. The biggest change being volume and focus on healthcare.

What was not different was the overall percentage of spending from outside groups. Even though there was slightly more dark money, outside group spending was pretty stable. It was about 30% of congressional advertising in comparison to 2014, 2016, 2012. And there was also not any more negativity than we had seen in previous elections. In fact, the rates of negativity were a little more than 2016, but not that much higher than the previous number of cycles. And so negativity stayed somewhat consistent as well. And so there’s always that interesting balance of some things are different, some things stay the same. And that was the case in 2018.

Matt Grossmann: And Franklin Fowler says 2018 was the healthcare election across congressional races.

Erika Franklin Fowler: The focus on healthcare was really quite dramatic. I think we have been obviously tracking ads for quite a long time. And it’s typical for one issue to rise to the top in a lot of elections. We have had cycles where we struggled to figure out what that issue was. There are occasionally cycles that seem to be about so many different things that they’re not about really anything at all. 2018 it was very, very clear that Democrats came back to the issue of healthcare. If we look at over time, just prior to the Affordable Care Act’s passage, we go back to 2008 in federal election advertising. Healthcare was in fewer than two in 10 ads. After the Affordable Care Act passed, Democrats all but ran away from the issue, leaving Republicans as the sole messengers on the topic.

Republicans were very clear and loud in about a third of their ads talking about promises to repeal and replace, whereas Democrats really didn’t talk about the issue. And the closest that they ever did were very, very oblique references to, I stood up to the insurance companies. And so 2018 represents a real turning point I think in healthcare messaging. When we’ve been through the Republican repeal and replace efforts of 2017, everyone knows that these things are at stake. And so Democrats really hammer home that they are the party of healthcare. They’re really focused, laser focused, in both House and Senate races, especially on coverage for preexisting conditions. Those seem to be some of the most prominent Democratic messages, but also on issues of Medicare and prescription drug costs. There were attacks on Republicans being funded by insurance companies and then concern about older people paying more for their healthcare.

Republicans interestingly don’t run away from the issue. In fact, they’re messaging on healthcare is roughly the same proportion of advertising as it always had been. It was about a third in US House races in particular. And their messaging becomes more complex, because obviously they have been through the 2017 attempts to repeal Obamacare and are unable to do so. So it’s no longer a straightforward repeal and replace message. But they do talk a lot about government intervention in healthcare. They also talk about Medicaid and veterans’ healthcare. But they also have messaging on preexisting conditions and touting their support for it, to some extent misleading some constituents, at least as far as what their votes on prior Republican legislation had been.

Matt Grossmann: Democrats changed strategy from 2016 to 2018, Franz says, possibly to their benefit.

Michael Franz: That was truly a surprising finding for us, or at least something that stood out in contrast to the time series of previous presidential cycles. We’ve speculated on its impact in 2016, but we don’t really know for sure. But one thing that I think stood out was, in 2018, seeing Democrats focus so aggressively, and as Erika pointed out, laser like focus on the issue of healthcare, and not so much on the issue of Donald Trump. They could have easily made 2018 a referendum on President Trump and tried to win races there given his unpopularity. They didn’t. They focused on issues, and they had a very good cycle. And so if you compare 2018 to 2016, you could make some claims that the policy focus is really what benefited the Democrats and what damaged Clinton in 2016.

And there’s definitely evidence that we produce over time when we looked how voters respond to particular ads. And they seem to rank ads that have a policy focus as being better, quote unquote, than ads that are focused on candidate characteristics broadly construed. So going into 2020, you would think that the Democrats would maybe continue that strategy. And some of our initial look at the 2020 ads has been surprising in how many candidates or how frequently some of these candidates, presidential candidates on the Democratic side, are mentioning Donald Trump in their ads. Now, certainly the Democrats are United in their desire to defeat Trump in 2020 as the number one thing for them. And Democratic candidates running for the nomination are trying to position themselves as the best candidate to do that.

So when you have someone like Joe Biden, who in almost all of his ads so far has contained an anti-Trump message or a Trump comparison to Biden. That stands out as a good strategy in the sense of what Democrats are looking for a nominee. But also stands out against the Clinton strategy, or at least is comparable to the Clinton strategy in 2016.

I haven’t figured out where I stand on this yet, but if the Democrats continue that and sort of run against Trump in that sort of he becomes the major point of the advertising for the Democrats in 2020, how will that sort of be a similar thing that Clinton did and it may not work or should the Democrats maybe in their advertising ignore Trump knowing that people’s opinions of him are essentially set and focus on offering voters in these ads and issue agenda? Someone like Pete Buttigieg for example, in Israeli campaign ads has not spent nearly as much time positioning himself in comparison to Trump, but has focused on predominantly issues. And so there is a difference of opinion here, I think amongst the campaigns about what will work first amongst primary voters, but then how that will move forward into the 2020 campaign.

Matt Grossmann: Candidates are still focused on television over digital unless their media markets are inefficient.

Erika Franklin Fowler: The average Senate candidates that 11.4% on digital advertising, which is obviously much smaller than perception. I think it’s important to note that obviously 2020 we expect that figure to rise as we see more and more candidates embracing those tactics. But still television is where the bulk of the money is spent in part because television ads are expensive, you’re reaching many, many more viewers in those places. And the candidates that we see spent being exception to that rule, spending much more on digital than they do on television are sort of, of predictable pattern. So they tend to be the candidates that where their political districts are a poor match for their media market. For example, congressional candidates who are running in the Los Angeles media market with pay a whole lot of money to air television ads and those markets and wouldn’t reach very large… It’s just not an efficient buy for those reasons.

And so they do spend a lot more on digital because they can more precisely target their constituents. And then on the Senate side in particular, we do see candidates who do spend 100% of their money on digital in part because they were either sure winners, like Sanders and Warren or Gillibrand or they were very unlikely to win, and therefore likely didn’t have the money to air ads on television. Television still really is a way to reach a large number of viewers at the same time as well as people who don’t traditionally tune into politics. That calculus will change as targeting becomes more prominent on digital platforms, but certainly in 2018 that wasn’t the case.

Matt Grossmann: They find there are some digital differences, but not necessarily the prophesied micro targeting.

Erika Franklin Fowler: I would say that the data that we have available to us in the digital advertising side may not be sufficient to uncover micro targeting if it exists. I do think that, so we have a working paper with our colleague, obviously Travis Ridout, Greg Martin and Zac Peskowitz in which we compared candidate advertising on television to candidate that same within candidate advertising on Facebook, from federal candidates on down to statewide offices. And there are some interesting surprises that we find in there and notably that Facebook advertising tends to be more positive than television advertising.

I want to put a huge asterisk on that finding, because it definitely depends on the way in which we define negativity, which standard, our classic WMP tone, classification, is really contingent upon references to an opponent. And there are other ways that one could go negative without doing that. So I want to flag that in particular, but the Facebook ads are more positive, less issue focused and then television advertising. And then interestingly, they’re also more partisan. And I think that last piece, there’s more that we need to dig into.

Matt Grossmann: Voters still don’t like TV ads, but scholars have come around to knowing they can be useful and important.

Michael Franz: I wonder if the discussion of conventional wisdom is challenging because on the one hand you have sort of a voter based conventional wisdom, which I think hasn’t changed all that much, which is that advertising is not very good. It’s not a great way to communicate. It’s highly emotional, negativity has gone up. There’s nothing good about them. There’s nothing issue related to them. Voters can’t learn anything from them. And most of the research that we’ve done over the last 20 years and a lot of the evidence in the scholarship suggests that those sort of baseline assumptions aren’t quite right. That negativity has gone up as we mentioned, there’s a lot of emotional appeals inside negative and positive advertising, but still negativity itself can be very issue focused. Campaigns do spend a lot of time mentioning the issues that they care about in their attacks, on the opposing candidates and in their own promotional ads.

And that these messages can actually serve valuable sources of information for voters. May not stimulate turnout, but it doesn’t likely decrease or turn voters off all that much from turning out or participating. It might actually contain substantive information even if in 32nd nuggets that are useful for voters and reconciling their positions or perspectives on candidates. And as Erica noted, they can in fact alter it at the margins we expect or we think even the research voters evaluations of these candidates, even if temporarily. And so there’s a lot of good that can come out of this. Our collaborator from many years ago, Paul Friedman was someone who came up with the sort of notion that campaign advertisements are best thought of as sort of multivitamins. That you would never sort of live or survive on multivitamins alone. That would be silly, but certainly they can provide a positive boost for your diet and for your overall health and they don’t likely hurt you if they do nothing.

And so that’s kind of what political ads are like. They provide a booster, a supplement if you’re missing the fruits and vegetables of real politics, not going to hurt you. And I think that with respect to the academic community, the conventionalism has come around to all of these things and has started to look at other interesting questions derivative from those. So if negativity doesn’t turn people off from turning out to vote, is that true across all voters or is it true amongst some voters for example? And so there’s some research that looks at variations of those negativity effects across different types of voters. And so I think the conventional wisdom and the scholar communities come around to what just mentioned, and then has inspired and created some really interesting additional questions about what happens underneath all of that.

Matt Grossmann: It’s hard to tell the mechanisms and the dynamics, but Franklin Fowler says, we know adds work to at least some degree.

Erika Franklin Fowler: It’s just hard to, to unpack exactly how much advertising matters in any given place. The debate between do ads polarizer and mobilize, I feel like is a false debate. That we sort of expect some ads are made to persuade and some ads are made to mobilize. And neither of these, and candidates are strategic in the ways, in the places that they will attempt to do one or the other or maybe they’re trying to do both. The one thing that I think is very clear is that the field studies of where we randomize television advertising in particular, does show that that advertising can be effective, but it also shows that they don’t have large or lasting effects.

And so if we know that advertising has these short-lived and relatively small effects that makes them very challenging, to isolate when you have a lot of other messaging and a lot of other campaign activity and messaging going on. And so I think it’s just a challenge for those of us who study this stuff to sort out where and when they matter. But I do think that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that advertising can influence citizens. And in saying that advertising is not large or doesn’t last, is not the same thing as saying that it doesn’t matter. So I think that’s the trick is that we know these effects are likely small, they’re not likely to last a whole lot, a long time. And so therefore, figuring out where and when we might expect them to have effects is really the name of the game. And that’s hard and that’s okay.

But I do think that if 2016 there was a lot of talk about Clinton’s ad advantage didn’t matter, but I think our own analysis show that there were advertising strategy considerations that if you just take the total volume doesn’t tell the whole story. Right? So Mike has already talked at length about sort of the content focus. We know that a lot of news media coverage talked a lot and Jonathan Ladd and others have shown very clearly that the news media coverage focused primarily on Clinton’s email. And I think her advertising strategy didn’t help this sort of personal focus, because her ads were very largely focused on Donald Trump’s personal characteristics without providing the sort of substantive policy reasons why voters should vote for her.

And again, as Mike said, very well, we don’t necessarily know that that matters, but I think if you have that one sort of consistent focus on an opponent and opponents personal characteristics, I’m not sure that that’s sufficient to bring voters around to your side. The other thing that we did notice is that also in the States that Clinton lost, she more or less ignored those states in terms of advertising. And advertising wasn’t the only way in which she ignored them, obviously. So we want to be careful about oversubscribing effects to advertising. But in Michigan and Wisconsin in particular, Clinton didn’t advertise there until the very last moment. And I think that it could have played a role.

Matt Grossmann: In 2020 so far, the big trend is Bloomberg and Steyer doing an amazing amount of advertising and experiment of sorts for scholars.

Erika Franklin Fowler: In 2020, I think if we were to take out Bloomberg and Steyer, I do think it would look more similar to prior years, but in fact, absent Bloomberg and Steyer we would probably talking about declines in television spending. It’s hard to say because obviously Bloomberg and Steyer are both advertising… They’re blanketing airwaves and investing heavily, which is driving costs and frequency up. It’s hard to sort of overstate the extent to which Bloomberg in particular is blowing away the competition, both from his democratic competitors, even including Steyer, but also in comparison to Donald Trump’s spending both on television and on Facebook and Google.

I mean, it’s just a stunning number of ads. He’s approaching 300,000. He’s not quite there yet, but ad airings. And so it’s just an astonishing number of ads that are on air, as well as an astonishing amount of money that he has spent. We talked in Washington Post, Monkey Cage blogged about his Superbowl advertising dropping 10 million on a single ad, and how that is so rare in politics. Because candidates typically don’t have that kind of money to drop in a single bucket that one ad costs more than Bernie Sanders had spent on his entire television campaign at that point. So it’s really stunning, I think. The extent to which he’s spending, and obviously Steyer is keeping up.

I wouldn’t say Bloomberg is the clear leader in spending, but those two are really taking an interesting tact. They are also taking interestingly different strategies. So where Steyer is more typically focused on the early states, Michael Bloomberg is really blanketing everywhere else. And so you have an interesting sort of division of labor between the two. And then you have the rest of the candidates who are basically trying to be heard through the blanket of Bloomberg and Steyer advertising. And so, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in these next few early voting to see whether those candidates stick it out and how the other candidates sort of battle to be heard through the noise, if that makes sense.

Matt Grossmann: Presidential ads do seem to be paying off so far, but maybe not enough to change outcomes.

Erika Franklin Fowler: Both have seen rises in polls. For Steyer, it’s been in the states. South Carolina and Nevada in particular, where he was advertising very heavily. And for Bloomberg, it’s more of a national rise in part because of his not focusing on the early states, but rather the rest of the country.

I do think both are indicative of what advertising can buy you. Now note, they’re spending astounding amounts of money and the bumps that they’re getting back are not that large. I mean they’re not small, but they’re also not large. And I think that is really indicative of what we know about advertising that they can help candidates, especially when they are airing ads unopposed like for Bloomberg in particular, but also just sort of bringing their names to more of a household name. Obviously not a lot of people pay that much attention and may not have heard of either of those candidates prior to their sort of advertising sweeps. So I do think that it’s an interesting almost sort of natural experiment that we’re having in terms of advertising for both of these candidates to see just how much advertising can buy you.

And I think that the rise in polls does suggest that advertising can influence candidate’s favorability. Of course I think when the rubber meets the road, well what you really want to know is how does that support hold up in the face of competitive information, which we know is coming. Obviously Steyer’s been dealing with more competitive information but not really of the kind that we would expect from a front runner. And so I think that is still to be untangled. But I do think that both are showing us pretty clearly that advertising investments on television do tend to correlate with increases in polls.

Well, interestingly, I mean I think Bloomberg’s particular content strategy focusing very heavily on healthcare and then his Super Bowl ad was focused on gun violence in particular, he’s touting sort of his strengths but also seemingly taking a page from the policy focused playbook. And so I do think that that is an interesting tactic. He’s sort of known as a candidate, I shouldn’t even say a candidate. Well, I would say a candidate. He’s known as a candidate who does pay attention to evidence. And I would suspect that may be part of the reason why he’s focusing on it that way.

Matt Grossmann: It’s been quite positive, but the negative ads could come later.

Erika Franklin Fowler: Until you have windowing of candidates, mostly they do tend to stay more positive. And I think the Biden attacks on Buttigieg, in particular over this last weekend, are an indication of there is a new front runner and so it’s become clear that it’s important to attack.

Matt Grossmann: Franz sees the logic in waiting to go negative.

Michael Franz: I think you see a lot of the sort of candidates go after the front runner oftentimes in whoever that is and primarily in these debates and they tend to stick to their own agendas or plans for their campaign in their ads. And then of course as the front runners are known to shift and change over the course of the long campaign, then the debates consequently shift. Whereas the ads themselves tend to not be as reactionary to the sort of week to week changes in polls and tend to be more focused on the candidates proactive agendas. And again, as Erika suggests, that will change as the field narrows. And as voters are faced with fewer choices, then you’ll start to see candidates sort of point out how they’re better than or different from the remaining two or one candidates in the race.

Matt Grossmann: And against Bloomberg, Franklin Fowler says it’s not as easy as saying the other candidate is just trying to buy the election.

Erika Franklin Fowler: Well, I do think that there are cases, Linda McMahon in Connecticut was one of these. But I think to the extent that these candidates are susceptible to attacks, I do think there are ways in which competing candidates can go after the money and privilege that they have. I think on the flip side citizens like the fact that they’re not relying on outside groups and so that can work to their advantage in interesting ways.

Matt Grossmann: Looking ahead to the fall, 2020 may repeat some of the patterns in 2016, including democratic big money.

Michael Franz: So I think at least with respect to the presidential race, it may still be the case in 2020 if we’re going to think a little prospectively about it, that the democratic nominee may end up putting more ads on TV than Donald Trump will in the general election phase. And that could be probably because of Trump’s general consistent approach at digital media and social media outreach. And you could probably see, I don’t think he’ll be off TV all that much, but I don’t think he’s going to put as big of an emphasis on it as the Democrats probably will. And so that trendline may continue in the sense that maybe the second presidential election where the Democrats greatly outspend Trump on television. In the congressional side it may, a lot does depend on sort of the scope of conflict nationally and the state of this sort of larger context. Democrats were on the offense in 2018, definitely had the upper hand in terms of the scope of competitive races. That could remain the case in 2020 or Republicans might be a little bit more on the offense depending on retirements and sort of distribution of competitive races across the country.

But certainly Democrats are no longer or at least are not opposed to embracing dark money in ways that they may otherwise have previously been opposed to it, they certainly are still opposed to it as a sort of party line. But in 2018 they did outspend… Democratic dark money groups did out advertise Republican or dark money groups for the first time in our data. And so that was another sort of small trend that we saw as a difference from 2016 and 2014. So you might still see, if Democrats think that they can solidify their position in the House, maybe pick up some Senate races, that they’ll certainly want to mobilize those resources to the extent that they can in those races. And dark money is not going to be something that they’re going to be philosophically opposed to embracing. Whether or not the final totals in these races advantage Democrats in the same way in 2020, again, will depend on the scope of competitive races and where those are. But it’s more likely I think a safe bet to say that the Democrats will outspend Trump in the fall campaign.

Matt Grossmann: But Franklin Fowler says down-ballot dems may have to distinguish themselves from the nominee.

Erika Franklin Fowler: And it’ll be interesting to see exactly how congressional candidates in particular try to either distinguish themselves from the presidential nominee or not. I do think that a Sanders nomination could be challenging for many Democrats. I think the issue of healthcare is obviously top of mind for lots of citizens and they care a lot about it. There are some minefields in there for Democrats in particular in part because it’s a complex issue area and I think it’s not always very well understood by citizens. And the partisan cues and partisan messages that you have on both sides are not always clear. And I think that you see that sort of in the 2018 discussion even among Republican candidates who are saying, “Well of course I support coverage for preexisting conditions.”

Matt Grossmann: Franz recommends more democratic advertising and more on the issues.

Michael Franz: For the Democrats my advice would generally be… well one is, I’ve always sort of fascinated since 2016 with the Clinton approach in Michigan and Wisconsin in terms of advertising so late in the game, which would stack up with what political scientists I suppose would suggest would be the for best use of your money given the short lived timespan on advertising effectiveness. However, that didn’t seem to work and it sort of obviously contributed to the narrative that she was taking those places for granted. And so there’s a lot more than persuasion that can send a signal or that can be signaled when you advertise. And so my advice for Democrats would be not to wait to advertise in these places. I’ll limit my advice to advertising since I don’t really know much about anything else. And would be to advertise in these places as soon as the general election starts and to remind voters what your policy platform is to have a highly policy-focused campaign in those places.

If you want to mention Donald Trump, I would stick perhaps to what George Bush did in 2000 which was talking about restoring honesty and integrity to the White House in sort of a failed swipe at Bill Clinton and the legacy of Bill Clinton. You can do the same talking about Donald Trump without ever having to say his name or point out his personal flaws. And so you can get I think a bang for your buck there. And so a highly issue-focused campaign and a campaign that makes clear to voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio that they are important to this campaign would be something that I think very beneficial to the Democrats.

Matt Grossmann: Franklin Fowler says they’ll be able to help journalists and the rest of us differentiate the real advertising trends.

Erika Franklin Fowler: I would just simply say that I sympathize with reporters in having to cover the advertising environment. There’s so much more to look at now than there used to be and it’s confusing. And I think knowing what is actually running versus what is just being put up on candidate webpages or what have you is hard to navigate. I will just simply offer our services, the Media Project in particular as being a resource for journalists. We are actively working trying to make sense of the multifaceted advertising environment across these different modes of communication and that we’re happy to continue to be a resource for them as they try to unpack and understand both the issue content focus, the volume and also the targeting of these messages.

Matt Grossmann: And Franz says they’ll be expanding to different kinds of advertising in the year ahead.

Michael Franz: We’re excited about being able to talk more about digital spending. And so as Erika mentioned at the beginning where we’re trying to get a good handle on the newly available Facebook and Google platforms spending reports. Some of the data that we’re getting now even from Kantar allows us to say a little bit more about local cable and even radio advertising. And so we’re hoping to broaden the kinds of things that we’re able to talk about in public releases and in our discussions about the volume of advertising because we know that campaigns are diversifying a lot more. We know there’s a lot more volume of TV ads in 2018 in the congressional races. At some point campaigns are going to start to realize that they can do the same amount of outreach, reach the same number of voters doing a lot of different things.

And so we want to get a good handle on how that is playing out and how campaigns are diversifying across mediums. And so that’s what we’re focused on in 2020. That of course means that there’s more to keep a hold of. Some of these datasets are not easy to use in the sense of categorizing sponsors as quickly and as efficiently as we can do with the TV side. But those are good problems to have because it means we can say a lot more about the scope of advertising across the full information environment.

The other thing we’re really fascinated about, and we spent a lot of time on the last few years, is trying to get a good handle across these different outreach platforms, not just the volume, but about the difference in the issue agendas. And so we think this is not only an interesting question periodically but a very interesting one normatively in terms of how campaigns are consistent in the message that they’re sending to voters on Facebook versus TV, or are they inconsistent and how does that play out across campaigns over time? So I think that’s another issue that we’ll be spending more of an academic focus on.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen center. I’m your Matt Grossman. Thanks to Erika Franklin Fowler and Michael Franz for joining me. Please check out “The Blue Wave” and Political Advertising in the United States and then listen in next time

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore under CC SA by 2.0.